California Sports Betting Initiative Could Get Special Treatment

Posted on August 13, 2020 - Last Updated on August 29, 2020

The sports betting initiative offered by California Native American tribes won’t be on the November ballot, but could still go in front of voters before 2022.

Up until a few weeks ago, Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the coalition of tribes backing the initiative, claimed there was still a small chance for the initiative to find its way to the ballot this year. He now admits that door has closed.

“Given the timing and ongoing restrictions, there is no chance of qualifying for this November’s ballot,” Mejia said.

Special election could speed up sports betting timeline

The tribal initiative was on pace to qualify for this year’s ballot before the coronavirus pandemic derailed signature-gathering efforts. However, the initiative got new life when a California judge granted proponents an extension on signature gathering to Oct. 12.

Reaching the required number of 997,139 valid signatures would get the initiative on the first eligible statewide election. That would be November 2022, but a special election could come sooner.

“The way it works is that if we qualify the initiative then it’s teed up for the next statewide election,” Mejia said.

Chances for a special election in California

Statewide special elections aren’t a regular occurrence in California. The last one was in 2009. There have been three this millennium.

But you might have noticed that these aren’t normal times. The governor or legislature can call for a special election. With the state facing unpredictable and extraordinary circumstances from the coronavirus pandemic, the likelihood of a special election increases for 2021.

This could play an important role for California sports betting. A special election would be an advantage for the tribal coalition, allowing the initiative to get on the ballot before a competing initiative or legislative amendment.

Timing could also play in the legislature’s favor. Without a special election, the earliest the tribal initiative can make the ballot is November 2022. Ballot measures gathered by signature can only appear on a general election ballot (or special election).

The legislature can next place a measure on the June 2022 primary ballot. However, after tribal opposition defeated the legislature’s sports betting bill this year, despite a push for revenue in the pandemic, it seems highly unlikely that tribes would let a legislative amendment make the ballot ahead of its qualified initiative.

Will California sports betting initiative qualify?

Mejia asserted last month that the initiative had more than 1 million signatures. To assure that enough signatures come from registered voters, the coalition wants to submit 1.6 million signatures in total.

Signature gathering for the initiative restarted in May after California entered stage 2 of the reopening process. However, petitioners indicated in the lawsuit that signatures were coming in at 10% of their previous rate. Since then, the governor tightened some restrictions as virus cases rose in the state.

“Although the court has extended the deadline to Oct. 12, COVID restrictions are causing strong headwinds,” Mejia said. “More than half of California counties — home to 97% of the state’s population — are on the state’s watchlist, which is making signature gathering very challenging.”

It’s still believed that the tribal initiative will get the signatures to qualify. The judge in the court case noted the petitioners could come back to him seeking another extension if warranted. The continued closures in the state likely would meet that criteria.

To make a special election ballot, the tribal initiative needs to have all signatures in and verified by counties.

Matthew Kredell Avatar
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Matthew Kredell

Matthew has covered efforts to legalize and regulate online gambling since 2007. His reporting on the legalization of sports betting began in 2010 with an article for Playboy Magazine on how the NFL was pushing US money overseas by fighting the expansion of regulated sports betting. A USC journalism alum, Matt started his career as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Daily News and has written on a variety of topics for Playboy, Men’s Journal, Los Angeles magazine, LA Weekly and ESPN.com.

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