Polk County elections supervisor: 63% of casino petitions rejected

·6 min read
Lori Edwards, Supervisor of Elections, at the Polk County Supervisor of Elections facility in Winter Haven, Florida  October 8, 2020.
Lori Edwards, Supervisor of Elections, at the Polk County Supervisor of Elections facility in Winter Haven, Florida October 8, 2020.

Across Florida, county election supervisors are reporting high rejection rates on petitions submitted for a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand casino gambling.

That also goes for Polk County.

Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said her office has found problems with nearly two-thirds of the petitions so far submitted seeking to place the measure, titled Limited Authorization of Casino Gambling, on the ballot for November’s general election.

Edwards said most of the petitions rejected by her staff have either contained names of voters not listed on the county’s rolls or have borne signatures not matching ones the office has on record for the listed voter.

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Incorrect and potentially fraudulent submissions of petitions for the casino gambling initiative

Election supervisors in several counties have reported a high volume of incorrect and potentially fraudulent submissions of petitions for the casino gambling initiative, according to multiple media reports. Some supervisors have drawn attention to petitions bearing the names of dead voters or forged signatures of actual voters, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox said his office reviewed petitions that contained his and his wife’s forged signatures, WJXT reported.

Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee based in Jacksonville Beach, is organizing efforts to collect enough signatures to have the proposed amendment placed on the ballot. An attorney for Florida Voters in Charge denied that the group has encouraged fraudulent petitions, the Times reported.

Election supervisors wrote to the office of Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody seeking help in investigating the problematic petitions. Moody had not responded as of Friday, the Times reported.

The Las Vegas Sands financed the petition drive, and its late owner, Sheldon Adelson, contributed heavily to the state Republican Party and to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Adelson’s widow, Miriam Adelson, has a majority stake in the company, which has spent nearly $50 million on the initiative, the Times reported.

The office of Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee shared a letter in December saying that some counties are working with state attorney’s offices on potential prosecution, the Miami Herald reported. Lee’s office said it had referred examples of potential fraud to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for investigation.

Secretary of State Laurel Lee leads a meeting of the Florida Presidential Electors at the Capitol in Tallahassee Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.
Secretary of State Laurel Lee leads a meeting of the Florida Presidential Electors at the Capitol in Tallahassee Monday, Dec. 14, 2020.

The process

All petitions for constitutional amendments must be submitted to the election office for the county in which the voter lives. Those offices are responsible for verifying each petition before it is forwarded to the Florida Division of Elections.

As of Monday, Edwards said her office had received more than 68,000 petitions on the casino gambling initiative. Her staff had approved more than 25,000 and rejected nearly 43,000, or about 63%.

Among the petitions found invalid, about 27,000 did not list names of voters registered in Polk County and nearly 9,000 lacked valid signatures, Edwards said. Smaller numbers were rejected as duplicates or because voters had been removed from the rolls or were not yet registered when they signed the petitions, she said.

Edwards said the 37% acceptance rate is much lower than those for other major petition drives in recent elections. Campaigns to get ballot placement for amendments on medical marijuana and raising the minimum wage averaged about 62% approval in Polk County, she said.

The supervisor said she expects FDLE investigators to focus on the petitions in the two main categories for rejection: names and signatures not matching voter records.

Edwards said her office had not found examples of forged signatures of actual voters. Asked if she suspects that some petitions have been fraudulent, Edwards said, “The number of petitions submitted that do not represent Polk County voters is very irregular.”

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The casino initiative would allow existing parimutuel businesses in North Florida to add Las Vegas-style casino gaming to their operations. At present, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is the only operator of casinos in Florida.

Edwards shared an example of a petition with The Ledger after redacting the voter’s information. The petition, rejected because another had already been submitted for the voter, was collected by a paid circulator from Alta Loma, California.

Cathy Bridges, vote-by-mail coordinator for the Polk Supervisor of Elections office, oversees the examination of submitted petitions. The office often receives boxes filled with forms from petition gatherers, known as paid circulators.

Bridges said the staff checks each petition to verify that names, dates of birth or voter registration numbers, addresses and signatures match her office’s records for registered voters. The staff also ensures that the person was registered to vote at the time of signing the petition and has not already had a petition submitted for that ballot measure.

The office submits to the state a record of petitions submitted by each paid circulator.

Under Florida law, supporters for a proposed constitutional amendment must submit valid petitions matching 8% of the total votes cast in the last presidential election and must meet that percentage threshold in at least half of the state’s congressional districts. That amounts to nearly 900,000 petitions statewide for this year’s election.

Polk County contains parts of three congressional districts.

Edwards said she hires additional employees during each election year to manage the task of verifying petitions for constitutional amendments. She said election employees throughout the state typically work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the weeks before the deadline for constitutional amendment petitions.

The Polk County office has reviewed about 65,000 petitions in the past two months, Edwards said. Political sponsors must pay 20 cents for the processing of each petition.

Edwards said she hasn’t talked to other election supervisors about the petitions but has kept up with information from the state association. She said she isn’t concerned that Moody hasn’t yet signaled plans to investigate.

“I think two things that come to my mind about this: One is, while there are clearly irregularities with these petitions that I am glad are being investigated, this is not the first time we have seen irregularities with petitions,” Edwards said. “And our current system of individual scrutiny of each petition for verification catches these irregularities. And so, the system works. We're catching this, and these petitions that are irregular or illegal are not being counted.”

The casino gambling measure is among about 30 constitutional amendments proposed by private groups and two submitted by the Florida Legislature for the 2022 election. Once a constitutional amendment is approved for the ballot, at least 60% of Florida voters must approve it for the measure to take effect.

The deadline for meeting the petition quota is Feb. 2, and the casino gambling measure remained nearly 300,000 signatures short of the needed total as of last week, Florida Politics reported.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Why 63% of these casino amendment petitions fail in Polk

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