Arkansas: Choctaw-backed ballot measure to halt Cherokee’s Pope County casino project rejected by election commissioners

Arkansas: Choctaw-backed ballot measure to halt Cherokee’s Pope County casino project rejected by election commissioners

The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners will not certify the ballot title for a proposed constitutional amendment intended to remove Pope County as a state-license casino site. The decision was taken on Wednesday through a vote. The commissioners said the Choctaw Tribe-funded ballot title lacked a reference to the existing license held by Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino site.

Dustin McDaniel, the legal counsel for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said the casino operator agrees with the election commissioners’ decision and appreciates their “thoughtful and diligent service”.

However, a spokesman for the Fair Play Arkansas 2022 committee that proposed the constitutional amendment —backed by Oklahoma-based Choctaws— said the group is disappointed with the board’s decision and will review its options.

“We assume Fair Play will petition the Supreme Court to review this decision and we will intervene to assist the Attorney General’s office in defending it,” McDaniel added, as reported by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

According to Act 376 of 2019, the responsibility for certifying a proposed ballot measure’s popular name and ballot shifted from the attorney general to the state Board of Election Commissioners.

Certification of a proposed ballot measure’s popular name and ballot title is one of the two requirements under state law for a ballot proposal to get on the general election ballot. The other requirement is for the secretary of state to certify that the sponsor has submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on petitions.

Over three weeks ago, Fair Play for Arkansas committee said it turned in 103,096 signatures in its attempt to qualify its proposed measure for the ballot. 

The anti-casino group intends to eliminate the Pope County casino license, arguing that Pope County never wanted a casino, given a majority of voters in the county opposed the 2018 amendment that expanded gaming in the state.

The secretary of state’s office hasn’t yet announced whether the committee has qualified its proposal ballot or a 30-day cure period to collect more signatures based on the signatures submitted.

Amendment 100 authorized in 2018 four casinos in different parts of the state, three of them now in operation in West Memphis, Pine Bluff, and Hot Springs. The licenses are authorized for expanding gambling operations at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, and for casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties with the endorsement of local officials.

The Legends Resort and Casino, a $225 million project, would be located near Russellville, off Hob Nob Road. It is set to feature 1,100 slot machines, 32 table games, and 200 hotel rooms. The license for the casino was awarded on November 12, after the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled to nullify the license previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. Last month, the project received approval from the city of Russellville. 

The Pope County casino license has long been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases.

The Choctaws operate Oklahoma casinos and may see the Pope County casino as a threat to its business, and the Cherokee Nation also has Oklahoma casinos and sees Pope County as a potentially good market.