Petition drive to bring sports betting to Florida folds

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The campaign to get a North Florida casino referendum on the 2022 ballot is still going.

There will be no proposed constitutional amendment to legalize online sports betting on the 2022 General Election ballot.

One organization behind the push in Florida has conceded it cannot get enough petition signatures verified in time to qualify by next Tuesday’s deadline.

Florida Education Champions, the organization funded by the big daily fantasy sports platforms DraftKings and FanDuel, announced Friday it is reassessing long-term options, still hoping one day to get voter approval for legal online sports gambling in Florida.

The other proposed gambling constitutional amendment drive, for a North Florida casino driven by the Las Vegas Sands Corp.’s committee Florida Voters In Charge, has not given up its campaign. However, Florida Voters In Charge, like Florida Education Champions, remains well behind the pace necessary to have nearly a million verified signatures turned in to the Secretary of State by next Tuesday.

At this point, the petition verification effort is out of the campaigns’ hands, and in the hands of Florida’s 67 county Supervisors of Elections. That’s assuming the campaigns even turned in enough signatures. While some county Supervisors of Elections may be hiring temporary workers and working long hours, they are under no legal obligation to clear out their in-baskets of petitions, which need verification by Feb. 1.

Florida Education Champions acknowledged as much in its statement Friday, essentially conceding defeat. Florida Education Champions spokesperson Christina Johnson contended her committee had collected more than 1 million signatures.

The problem is the state verified only roughly half that number as of Friday morning. The Secretary of State’s office showed Florida Education Champions had just 471,536 verified signatures.

“We are extremely encouraged by the level of support we saw from the more than one million Floridians who signed our petition and thank them for their efforts in wanting to bring safe and legal sports betting to Florida, while funding public education. While pursuing our mission to add sports betting to the ballot, we ran into some serious challenges, but most of all, the COVID-19 surge decimated our operations and ability to collect in-person signatures,” Johnson said in a release. “We want to thank our local Supervisors of Elections and staff members for their diligent work in verifying petitions. We will be considering all options in the months ahead to ensure that Floridians have the opportunity to bring safe and legal sports betting to the state, along with hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support public education.”

Florida’s only other legal online sports betting option, the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Hard Rock Sportsbook, was shut down by a federal court in November after about three weeks of operation under Florida’s 2021 Gaming Compact. While that court decision is being appealed, the end of Florida Education Champions’ effort means that legal, online sports betting may be unlikely to be available in Florida for years, if ever.

The gambling industry is recognizing that prospect. suggested that Florida’s next realistic chance of getting sports betting approval would be on the 2024 ballot. In an article published on Thursday, Bill Speros declared, “Legal online sports betting in Florida is all but dead until at least 2025. …”

Florida Education Champions had tried to market its campaign as one for education and carved out language in the proposed constitutional amendment that would have set aside proceeds for education. However, that would have required an act of the Florida Legislature to provide any certainty. Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe, seeking to protect its market, spent big on counter-campaigning both gambling petitions, trying to convince Florida voters not to sign.

With well-funded opposition and precious little time — the two gambling proposals didn’t start their petition drives until around Labor Day 2021 — the two campaigns were widely viewed as underdogs from the start.

Nonetheless, Florida Voters In Charge found itself Friday in a stronger, albeit still precarious, position to try to get enough verified signatures for its North Florida casino ballot initiative effort by next Wednesday. And the campaign is not giving up hope.

“Supervisors of Elections are verifying petitions, and we will wait for their official count,” said Florida Voters In Charge spokesperson Sarah Bascom.

As of Friday, Florida Voters In Charge had 723,494 verified signatures. Because that drive had over-gathered in some of Florida’s congressional districts, the petition drive will need at least an additional 50,000 signatures over normal, or about 941,000 total, by Tuesday.

That would require Supervisors of Elections offices to verify an average of more than 43,000 petition signatures per day through Tuesday.

In the previous week, since Jan. 21, the Supervisors of Elections Offices averaged verifying just under 19,000 signatures per day for Florida Voters In Charge’s effort, plus another 9,000 per day for Florida Education Champions’ campaign. That was presumably with the same sense of urgency because the Feb. 1 deadline was already clearly looming.

Florida Voters In Charge also has to clear mandated bare minimums for petition signatures in each of Florida’s 27 congressional districts. Through Friday, the campaign had achieved those thresholds in only five districts.

As for the sports betting campaign, if Florida Education Champions wishes to try again — aiming at the 2024 ballot in Florida — the effort would have to start over.

That means most of the money spent this year, and all the petition signatures gathered, are lost. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, through Dec. 31, Florida Education Champions had dumped more than $36 million into its campaign.

Florida Voters In Charge had spent $45 million on its effort by the end of 2021.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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