LINCOLN — A higher-than-normal error rate in collecting signatures sank the latest effort to let Nebraskans decide whether to legalize casino gambling.
Secretary of State John Gale announced Thursday that a proposed constitutional amendment to allow casino games at the state’s Thoroughbred horse racing tracks came up well short of qualifying for the November ballot.
The problem: too many invalidated signatures, including signers who either weren’t registered voters or had signed the petition in a county where they were not registered.
“It was quite stunning,” Gale said.
About 35 percent of the roughly 120,000 signatures submitted by the pro-gambling group Keep the Money in Nebraska were rejected, which is more than double the rate of past petition drives.
The high rejection rate left the effort with only 77,956 valid signatures, well short of the number needed: 117,188, or 10 percent of the total number of registered voters as of July 7.
County election officials tossed more than 41,000 signatures.
Similar rejection rates could sink the two other initiative petitions submitted by the pro-gambling group, even though they need fewer signatures.
Those petitions propose state laws that would regulate casinos at racetracks and spell out how tax revenues from the casinos would be divided.
Without constitutional authorization, however, those laws could not be implemented, even if they made the ballot and were approved by voters.
“I won’t say it’s highly likely, but it looks probable that there will be the same problem with them,” Gale said.
Scott Lautenbaugh, a former state senator from Omaha and a spokesman for the pro-gambling group, said he was disappointed but could not say why the rejection rate was so high until he got more information.
“We’re going to review what they did and decide what to do next,” he said.
Lance Morgan, head of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said he is seeking information from the company hired to collect signatures about the “ridiculously high” error rate. “We don’t plan to give up,” he said. “The people we talk to think it’s about time Nebraska allowed casino gambling.”
The most recent campaign finance report showed that all but $33,000 of the $1.3 million spent on the petition drive came from Ho-Chunk.
Lautenbaugh said one of the reasons the effort was hampered was because of its complexity: Circulators had to carry three petitions instead of one.
The Keep the Money in Nebraska drive was the first in several years to be allowed to pay petition circulators by the signature, and some have speculated that such circulators might be less attentive to the rules if they were paid that way.
Lautenbaugh said he didn’t know if that was the case.
Pat Loontjer, executive director of Gambling with the Good Life, had another explanation. She said the petition drive’s failure shows yet again that Nebraskans do not want expanded gambling.
“If they couldn’t do it with 10 months and $1 million, I don’t know how they could do it,” she said.
Loontjer cheerfully admitted that she had been wrong in predicting that the petition drive would succeed.
She said her group didn’t even try to stop the petition drive and had been preparing instead to fight the anticipated ballot measures.
“Nebraska’s been spared once again,” she said. “God gave us another miracle.”
Nate Grasz, a policy analyst for the Nebraska Family Alliance, called Thursday’s announcement good news for Nebraska. He expressed confidence that voters would have defeated the measure if it had made the ballot.
The last time that Nebraskans voted on expanded gambling was in 2006, when voters rejected a proposal to allow video keno devices.
In 2004 voters defeated two measures that would have legalized casinos in the state, one proposed by the Legislature and one put on the ballot by petition.
Morgan said pro-gambling forces have 10 days in which to contest the decision by Gale’s office. If it sticks, he said Ho-Chunk would likely downsize its $30 million to $40 million plan to renovate the former Atokad racetrack in South Sioux City, Nebraska, into a casino complex.
“We think that long-term gaming will happen at the tracks,” Morgan said. “Maybe my kids will live to see it.”
The total number of signatures fell short, but the petition drive did meet the requirement for collecting signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in at least 38 counties.
Based on a preliminary analysis, Gale said the largest number of rejected signatures were from people who were not registered to vote in Nebraska or in the county indicated on the petition sheet.
“That accounted for more than 24,000 signature rejections,” he said.
Nearly 4,600 additional signatures were duplicates, and more than 3,000 signatures were rejected because the signer’s voter registration had been removed from the system for inactivity.
In some counties, such as Banner, Kimball and Sheridan, the number of accepted signatures equaled the number of rejected. No counties had less than a 50 percent validity rate.
The county with the highest validity rate was Grant County, with nearly 91 percent of signatures accepted. The average validity rate among all counties was just over 65 percent.
Gale said he had requested that county election officials verify signatures for the constitutional amendment before checking signatures for the proposed state laws.
The final decision on whether the two remaining gambling petitions qualify for the ballot is not expected for at least two weeks.
Correction: About 35 percent of Keep the Money in Nebraska's about 120,000 signatures were rejected. A previous version of this report misstated the number of signatures.