Legal fight heats up over signature validation in new casino ballot initiative

by | Feb 2, 2022

 

TALLAHASSEE — The fate of a proposed constitutional amendment that would open the door to Las Vegas-style casinos in North Florida remained in limbo Tuesday, after a judge refused to immediately give backers of the proposal more time for verification of signatures required for placement on the 2022 ballot.

Florida Voters in Charge, the committee sponsoring the proposed amendment, faced a 5 p.m. deadline Tuesday to have nearly 900,000 signatures validated by state elections officials to reach the November ballot. As of Tuesday evening, the state Division of Elections website showed the effort was tens of thousands of signatures short.

The committee filed an eleventh-hour motion Monday night asking, in part, that the deadline be extended.

But in a hastily scheduled hearing Tuesday afternoon, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper said he needed more time to review the issues.

“If this case was a plant, the seed just barely began to germinate. It’s too early,” Cooper, who has been on the bench for more than two decades, said. “I’m not denying it forever. I’m just saying I’m not going to even consider it today.”

The lawsuit accused elections officials of sitting on piles of petitions signed by voters in support of the proposal, which would allow existing pari-mutuel cardroom operators in North Florida to offer Las Vegas-style games at their facilities. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which vehemently opposes the initiative, is the sole purveyor of casino gambling in the state.

A political committee, individuals and businesses linked to the Seminoles were locked during the past two months in a legal battle with the Florida Voters in Charge committee. Backers of the casino initiative accused the tribe of unlawfully interfering with the petition-gathering process by paying off contractors and intimidating workers. The legal battle was dropped Monday.

County elections supervisors, however, also have referred incidents of potentially fraudulent signatures for the casino initiative to state and local law enforcement, leading to probes of alleged criminal wrongdoing. Some county elections officials said more than 60 percent of petitions supporting the initiative have been rejected, an unusually high rejection rate for ballot initiatives.

But the lawsuit filed Monday pointed the finger at local elections officials for the committee’s failure to submit the required 891,589 valid petition signatures to the state by the deadline. As of early Tuesday evening, the state Division of Elections website showed a total of 814,212 signatures.

“Supervisors of elections around the state have not fulfilled their duty to promptly verify signatures as they were submitted, and instead permitted a backlog of signatures to amass, such that many signatures will not be processed and sent to the secretary of state by February 1, 2022. Yet the secretary of state plans to cut off the verification process at 5 p.m. on February 1, 2022, leaving thousands of signatures dated prior to February 1 sitting on supervisors’ desks and ineffective for this or any other election cycle,” said the 41-page lawsuit filed by attorney Jesse Panuccio, who served as former Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel.

The lawsuit also challenged signature-matching requirements initiated by local elections officials, saying “tens of thousands of signatures have been rejected for purported mismatch with the signature in the voter registration system. But the state offers no notice or opportunity to cure, such that these voters are deprived of their ability to support the proposed initiative.”

The legal challenge also alleged that certain Florida laws governing the ballot-initiative process are unconstitutional.

“The Constitution permits regulation of the initiative petition process only to the extent it is strictly necessary to ensure ballot integrity,” the lawsuit said, arguing that state laws, rules and “ad hoc practices that have led to exclusion of thousands of voters from the official count are not strictly necessary – or even logically related – to ballot integrity.”

“Accordingly, plaintiffs seek to have those laws and practices declared unlawful and enjoined, with the injunction imposing an effecting remedy that ensures the secretary (of state) will not certify ballot qualification and position until all signatures are processed and all voters with mismatched signatures are afforded notice and an opportunity to cure,” the lawsuit said.

Cooper held an emergency hearing, as requested by the plaintiffs. But the judge said he needed more time to decide whether state laws governing the ballot-initiative process were unconstitutional.

“It appears that what you want me to do is find a whole host of recently enacted statutes unconstitutional … and you want me to take over control of the secretary of state’s office … and tell her how to run the office,” the judge said at one point.

Panuccio said more than 286,000 petitions were awaiting approval by supervisors as of Tuesday’s deadline.

“To sum it up, the issue is this: These signatures are sitting on the desk and as of 5 o’clock, the secretary (of state) says, no more, you cannot count those toward whether you’re going to be qualified (for the ballot) and that is going to silence the voices of tens of thousands of Florida voters,” he argued.

But Cooper balked at the request for emergency action.

“If I entered a temporary injunction today, I probably would be reversed (by an appeals court) in less time than it took for you to file this here,” he said. “I just haven’t had proper briefing to deal with it.”

Panuccio urged Cooper to ensure that petitions that haven’t been processed be “safeguarded” after the deadline.

Ashley Davis, an attorney who works for Secretary of State Laurel Lee, told Cooper that Florida law “expressly requires” signatures to be retained for a year following the election.

“I just think it’s too fast, too quick for me to be entering injunctions,” Cooper said. “And in light of the representation of the secretary of state’s counsel … I don’t think I need to enter an order requiring them to follow the law.”

Despite Panuccio’s objections, Cooper also allowed the Seminole Tribe and a political committee linked to the tribe to join the lawsuit as intervenors.

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