Court filings related to an extension for two major California counties to verify initiative signatures reveal a battle brewing between Native American tribes and the Secretary of State over the sports betting measure’s eligibility for a gubernatorial recall ballot.
Registrars for Los Angeles and San Diego counties last week filed a civil case against the California Secretary of State. In it, they request an extension on their deadline to verify signatures for two statewide initiatives.
With the full check of signatures due today, parties in the case reached an agreement on a 34-day extension ahead of a hearing in the California Superior Court in Sacramento. Judge Laure M. Earl approved the agreement, which delays certification of the initiative to May 26.
The relief on signature verification was granted to counties statewide. As part of the stipulation, the court also directed that the registrars prioritize signature verification on the sports betting initiative.
Tribal representatives made clear to the court that they objected to the counties’ original request of a 60-businesses day extension to July 19 because they want to preserve the opportunity for the initiative to make a potential recall election this year.
The petitioners in the case originally indicated their belief that the extension would not affect either initiative. This was based on direction from the Secretary of State that initiatives would not be eligible for the recall ballot. PlayCA confirmed with a Secretary of State spokesman its stance that the sports betting initiative could not be eligible until the November 2022 general election.
Is California sports betting initiative special or not?
Before the recall gained serious momentum, tribal backers expected the initiative would qualify for any special election ballot.
That turned out to be up for legal debate.
In their filing to be included as “Real Parties of Interest” in the case, backers of the tribal initiative cited article II, section 8, subdivision (c) of the California Constitution:
The Secretary of State shall then submit the measure at the next general election held at least 131 days after it qualifies or at any special statewide election held prior to that general election.
Adhering to that language, the Secretary of State allowed two ballot measures in California’s last gubernatorial recall election in 2003.
However, statutes issued since then contradict the constitutional language. A 2011 law wrote that citizen-initiated propositions can only make November general election ballots.
“The Secretary of State’s office has reviewed applicable case law, the California Constitution, and the California Elections Code, and has determined that initiatives and referenda may only be placed on a special election ballot if the special election is called by the legislature or the Governor,” explained Chris Miller, communications coordinator for the Secretary of State. “For a potential recall election involving the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor only has the power to proclaim the recall election.”
Extension granted for signature check
According to the court filings, the county registrars approached Secretary of State Shirley Weber about the extension. They found out the deadline could not be changed without a court order.
A random count concluding March 9 indicated that full verification of signatures was required for two initiatives. The other initiative in the case involves taxing single-use plastics, which did not oppose the proposed July 19 extension.
The counties were given 30 business days to complete the full check of signatures. For the sports betting initiative, Los Angeles County had 394,699 signatures to verify, and San Diego 160,234. That totals nearly 40% of the 1,427,365 signatures collected.
The counties indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic affected staffing, with social distancing requirements limiting space to do counts. And they were working on verifying signatures for the petition to recall Newsom, which must be completed by April 29.
Given the circumstances, the county representatives apparently thought no one would object to the extension. After all, the tribal coalition used the same means to get an extension on signature collection for similar reasons.
However, the backers of the tribal initiative asked to be added to the case. They complained about the petition delaying certification of the initiative to a “date that would render it impossible for the initiative to be submitted to the voters in conjunction with the gubernatorial recall special election that is likely to be held later this year.”
Will there be another lawsuit on eligibility for recall ballot?
The 34-day extension means the sports betting initiative can be certified more than 131 days prior to a possible November recall election.
“We are satisfied that this matter was resolved amicably and preserves the measure’s ability to meet other required deadlines in case of a change in the current outlook about when initiatives will appear on the ballot,” said Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the tribal coalition behind the initiative.
In announcing the then-tentative agreement, the petitioners indicated that the tribal coalition’s “purported interest in the litigation is that they want to preserve the opportunity to be on a potential gubernatorial recall special election ballot.”
Unless some information arises that causes the Secretary of State to change its decision to exclude initiatives from the recall ballot, the only way that could happen is through another lawsuit.
By getting on the ballot a year early, the tribes could avoid any possible challenges that may arise next year. These could come from a legislative proposal or competing sports betting initiative.
Another of many delays for sports betting initiative
The CA sports betting initiative was filed Nov. 4, 2019, by the tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Barona Band of Mission Indians, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. But it’s backed by a coalition of more than 20 leading gaming tribes.
The measure authorizes retail-only sports betting at tribal casinos and horse racetracks. It also allows tribal casinos to offer roulette and dice games.
It was on its way to making the November 2020 general election ballot when the pandemic derailed signature-gathering efforts. When signature collection resumed, it took longer due to social distancing restrictions, leading to the tribal lawsuit for an extension.
Now this is one more delay to the initiative qualifying for a ballot.
As the verification of the initiative currently stands, it’s like an election with the results only partially in. Forty of 58 counties have reported. With two outstanding counties among the largest in the state, only 373,769 of 1,427,365 submitted signatures have been checked.
That’s a validity rate of 74.66%. Based on the projected totals of the remaining counties in the random count completed last month, the sports betting initiative is on pace for 1,055,175 valid signatures. It needs 997,139 signatures verified to qualify.