Voting For and Against Gambling

written by I. Nelson Rose

#170 © Copyright 2010, I. Nelson Rose, Encino, California. All rights reserved worldwide. Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I. Nelson Rose,

If God wanted us to vote, he would have given us candidates.
Jay Leno

On November 2, 2010, the voters of Anne Arundel County approved creating what will be Maryland’s largest casino.

In Iowa, voters in 17 counties approved extending the lives of their state-licensed casinos by another eight years.

Residents of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, approved an initiative to permit a casino in that city.

And in Maine, a majority of voters approved expanding gaming with a $165 million casino and resort in Oxford that will, for the first time, have not only slot machines but table games.

There were, of course, also losses. Existing tribal casinos in Oregon poured in millions of dollars to defeat Measure 75, which would have authorized the state’s first privately owned casino. And state-licensed cardclubs and tribes with casinos in Northern California defeated the advisory Measure U, which would have eased the way for a competing tribal casino to be built in Richmond.

With so much legal gambling in the U.S., it is not surprising that elections are now primarily contests between developers and established operators.

For example, casinos are already legal in Maryland. So the election there was really a fight between Cordish Cos., which wants to open a 4,750-slot-machine casino next to the Arundel Mills shopping mall, and the Maryland Jockey Club. Now that it is clear that the next casino will not be built at Laurel Park, that racetrack will probably shut down its live racing.

In a year of right-wing religious and political victories, voters still approved gaming. Every Iowa county has always voted to renew their casinos, as they are required to do every eight years. They did it again in 2010, even while using the ballot box to remove three State Supreme Court Justices, who had voted in favor of same sex marriage.

The voters in tiny Wapello County, Iowa, population 35,000, appear to be the only ones who don’t want a casino simply because it is a casino. But they were voting against bringing in a casino, and only 52% to 48%, not getting rid of an existing one.

It used to be easy to predict how an election involving legal gambling would turn out: The “anti’s” would win.

Until November 1996, voters had never approved amending their state constitution to permit high-stakes casinos in the face of active opposition. All high-stakes casino-style gambling in America, with the exception of Atlantic City, had been created without voter approval by state legislatures and Indian tribes. Even Nevada voters were never asked whether they wanted casinos.

Even the casinos in Atlantic City were a political aberration. The 1976 election was not really a contest. Opponents were so over-confident, having defeated casinos at the polls by 60% only two years earlier, that they literally ran no campaign against the Atlantic City proposal: Committees opposing casinos took in only $23,230 and did not even spend it all! Proponents spent more than 50 times as much, $1,330,615.

Prior to 1996, there had been a few other successful attempts to legalize casinos. But these all involved proposal for low stakes gaming, far from the states’ cities. In fact, it seemed like the only way to win an election for casinos was to promise the voters that players wouldn’t lose too much, and the gambling would be isolated onto a mountaintop or surrounded by water: Iowa voters approved $5 maximum bet casinos only on riverboats, and Colorado and South Dakota voters limited their $5 casinos to little mountain towns. Missouri voters accepted riverboat casinos, with the unworkable rule that no one could lose more than $500.

Everything changed with the November 1996 elections, the greatest victory in American history for legal gambling, particularly for casino gaming.

For the first time in American history, the citizens of two states voted, in the face of active opposition, to bring in new, high-stakes casinos. The citizens of Michigan and Arizona approved new casinos, without limiting the size of wagers or restricting the gaming onto riverboats or mountaintops.

For the first time in American history, local citizens throughout a state voted unanimously, in the face of active opposition, to retain high-stakes casinos. Six parishes in Louisiana had riverboat casinos and Orleans Parish had a land-based casino. All seven voted to keep their casinos, by enormous margins.

In fact, commercial gambling won scattered victories in every region of the country, even in the most conservative states. Twenty-three additional parishes in Louisiana approved the option of establishing new riverboat casinos. Jefferson County, West Virginia, approved up to 1,000 Video Lottery Terminals at the Charles Town racetrack. Michigan rejected a ban on bingo for political fund-raisers. And, Marion County, Indiana, voted in favor of building a harness racetrack outside Indianapolis.

Since then, there has been no looking back.

Of course, most proposals to bring in or expand legal gaming still lose at the ballot box. But as recently as the 1950s, every gambling initiative or referendum always lost. Voters would not even approve a state lottery.

It is sometimes difficult to remember those times. When legal gambling was limited to Nevada and a few racetracks and cardclubs, it was political death for a candidate to be linked with any form of gaming.

That changed in 1998. The year was a political sweep for the Republicans. Democrat Bill Clinton had won the presidency in 1996. As we saw so well this year, the President’s party almost always loses everywhere in the next mid-term election, especially when the economy is bad. So it was in 1998, when every Republican governor was reelected – except two.

The only GOP defeats were in Alabama and South Carolina, where Democratic challengers prevailed, running on platforms of creating state lotteries to raise money for education. The Republican incumbents took hard-line stands against all gambling – and lost.

There are always many issues involved with political races. So it is not possible to tell whether the Democrats won because they were in favor of state lotteries. But these were some of the first elections where it is clear that being linked with legal gambling no longer destroyed politicians’ careers.

Now, it appears that being seen as opposed to legal gaming may actually hurt a candidate. It’s no surprise that the casino industry helped reelect Harry Reid in Nevada, especially when it became clear that tea-party wacko Sharron Angle was backed by anti-gambling activists. A group called Racino Now claims that, “The racino issue proved to be one of the deciding factors in many important 2010 Minnesota Senate and Minnesota House elections,” with pro-racino candidates beating anti’s. Even in Illinois, it may have made a difference.

Bill Brady, the right-wing Republican nominee for Governor, got some publicity five days before the elections for saying “Video poker is the scourge of Illinois.” This forced Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn to reluctantly defend legal gambling as an unfortunately necessary way to raise revenue for the state. In a year of a Republican sweep, Brady lost in a squeaker.

Maybe those few thousand votes against Brady were from people who depend on Illinois finding ways to fund its government. Or maybe they were just from voters who like to play video poker.

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I. Nelson Rose

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