LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) – The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously denied a Texas businessman's bid for more time to gather signatures for a casino legalization measure he hoped to get on the November ballot, backing the state's determination that his first attempt fell short.
Michael Wasserman, who wanted voters to give him exclusive rights to operate casinos in seven Arkansas counties, argued that Secretary of State Mark Martin's office improperly rejected his petitions when it said he didn't meet a requirement that signatures from at least 15 counties equal at least 5 percent of the votes cast in the most recent governor's election. He fell short in Prairie, Saline and Woodruff counties.
Proposed amendments need signatures from at least 78,133 registered voters to qualify for the ballot. Wasserman has argued that he only needed to clear an initial count of the numbers, not in the 15 counties, to qualify for more time.
Deputy Secretary of State A.J. Kelly told the court earlier this month that after denying the petitions, elections officials determined that the vast majority of signatures submitted by Wasserman were not valid. Elections officials said that only 11,065 signatures submitted were valid. Kelly said Wasserman has already missed the 30-day window to challenge that finding and submit more petitions.
The high court sided with the state in its opinion released Thursday.
"We hold that in order to qualify for additional time, the petition must first on its face contain a sufficient number of signatures pursuant to both the statewide and 15-county requirement before the 30-day provision to correct deficiencies applies," the court said.
The state had tentatively certified Wasserman's proposal for the ballot while his lawsuit was being considered. Martin's office said Thursday that it was too late to remove the proposal from the ballot, but no votes cast on the issue would be counted since he didn't qualify.
"We're happy that the court saw that we did our part in the process correctly," said Alex Reed, a spokesman for Martin's office.
Wasserman said he was disappointed by the ruling, which he said would make it more difficult for people to put proposals before voters. Wasserman said he likely would try to get his proposal on the 2014 ballot.
"I think it's scary," Wasserman said. "This gives the secretary of state a tremendous amount of power that is not supposed to be in that office."
The court rejected the state's argument that Wasserman didn't have standing to sue since he's not an Arkansas voter. Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote that he disagreed with that part of the ruling and noted that Wasserman's corporation papers filed with Arkansas did not list any shareholders or directors with the state.
"The use of an Arkansas corporation in this case was a ruse to permit a resident of Texas to propose the law," Hannah wrote in a concurring opinion.
Wasserman's lawsuit was one of three before the court over casino legalization measures. Justices are considering two separate lawsuits over a competing amendment by professional poker player Nancy Todd, who's seeking the right to operate casinos in four counties.
Todd has sued the state for rejecting the wording of her amendment, while a campaign funded by a Hot Springs horse track that offers video poker and blackjack has filed a separate lawsuit opposing her amendment.
That campaign, the Arkansas Racing Alliance, had also intervened in the lawsuit over Wasserman's proposal and urged the court to reject his petitions. Elizabeth Robben Murray, an attorney for the alliance, said Thursday's ruling helped clarify the signature requirements that ballot measures face.
"I think it helps the secretary of state's office, it helps the people who would sponsor and promote an initiative and those who would challenge it," she said.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.