HILLARY GABRIELE—Florida’s multibillion-dollar gaming industry has incited a “turf war” between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and rival gaming companies, which hoped to place certain gaming constitutional amendments on the 2022 midterm ballot. The Seminole Tribe currently runs the only Las Vegas-style gaming operations in Florida. However, the Tribe, which recently poured $1.5 billion into its signature Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood resort, now faces competition from FanDuel, DraftKings, and Las Vegas Sands—giants in the gaming industry who spent more than $60 million on an effort that almost succeeded in getting their desired gaming amendments on the 2022 ballot.
Tensions further escalated following a lawsuit filed December 1, 2021, in the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, Florida, by Florida Voters in Charge, a political committee financed by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., against Standing Up for Florida, a rival committee backed by the Seminole Tribe. The lawsuit alleges that the Seminole Tribe was illegally trying to sabotage initiatives by Las Vegas Sands to advance the proposed gaming amendment. Florida Voters in Charge contends that parties acting on behalf of the Tribe have “engaged in concerted and aggressive efforts to harass and intimidate individuals who are exercising their legal right to obtain signatures necessary to place a citizen initiative on the ballot.” They also assert that defendants are “paying off” contracted petition circulators to keep them from performing the jobs that Florida Voters in Charge hired them to do.
However, Stand Up for Florida fired back with their own allegations of corruption. The group counters that Florida Voters in Charge is paying petition gatherers by the signature, a violation of Florida law. They also claim that a contractor illegally disposed of incomplete or erroneous petitions to avoid being financially penalized by Florida Voters in Charge. In an emergency motion for temporary injunction to prevent election fraud, Stand Up for Florida sought to block Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley and Secretary of State Laurel Lee from certifying “illegally-obtained initiative petitions.”
The constitutional amendment at the center of the lawsuit is the Florida Casino Gaming Expansion Initiative. This ballot initiative would have asked Florida voters whether pari-mutuel operators should be allowed to add casino games to their operations. Sponsored by Florida Voters in Charge, the proposed amendment would have allowed license holders to conduct casino gaming within Florida, subject to two requirements. First, the gaming floor of the license holder must be more than 130 miles on a straight line from any of the seven casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe. Second, the license holder must comply with a minimum capital investment requirement of $250,000,000 within three years of submitting a Notice of Commencement of Casino Gaming. The proposed amendment ultimately failed to meet the ballot requirements by the February 1 deadline, receiving only 814,266 of the 891,589 signatures required.
Although unsuccessful, the Florida Casino Gambling Expansion Initiative reflects a push to grow the gaming industry within Florida because of its potential to expand the state’s economy. In April, 2021, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a sweeping gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe that would allow the Tribe to offer online sports betting, as well as craps and roulette at its casinos (a federal judge later ruled this agreement was illegal as it violated provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulation Act). At the time, Governor DeSantis lauded the sports betting deal as establishing “the framework to generate billions in new revenue and untold waves of positive economic impact.” American Gaming Association reports that, within the state of Florida alone, the casino gaming industry has a $7.55 billion economic impact and supports 54,142 jobs. Supporters of another constitutional amendment that would authorize sports betting in Florida point to the amendment’s potential $3.5 billion annual economic impact and support of over 31,100 jobs. If the amendment at the center of the Las Vegas Sands-backed lawsuit passes, new Las Vegas-style casinos could open across North Florida along the Interstate 10 corridor, which does not have any Tribe-owned facilities. A poker room in the Jacksonville area that has had the busiest cardroom in the state for years is the presumed target of the measure.
The nearly successful drive to get the initiative on the ballot illustrates the potential influence of large corporations on Florida’s politics and economy. As the February 1 deadline approached, the Miami Herald reported that election supervisors have received thousands of fraudulent petition forms in a massive potential election-related fraud scheme. As a result of the suspected illegal conduct, Secretary of State Laurel Lee sent a letter to Deputy Attorney General John Guard, warning about the possible fraudulent constitutional initiative petitions. Las Vegas Sands poured $49.6 into its efforts to get the amendment on the ballot and potentially end the Seminole Tribe’s monopoly on casino-style gambling in Florida, a position that the Tribe spent $10 million to defend. But while both sides stood to gain huge profits from the state’s gaming industry, Florida stands to lose the integrity of its elections process.