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High rejection rate of gambling petition’s signatures leaves effort’s future in doubt

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Even before it hits the finish line, a petition drive to allow Nebraskans to vote whether to legalize casino gambling at horse-racing tacks looks unlikely to reach the winner’s circle.

In Douglas County, the home to one of the four operating racetracks in the state, nearly four in 10 signatures submitted for one of the three gambling petitions have been disqualified by county election workers.

In Lancaster County, which also has a racetrack, the rejection rate was unusually high one in three.

The rejection rates in the state’s two largest counties for the constitutional amendment portion of the initiative raise doubts that the pro-gambling group, Keep the Money in Nebraska, can qualify the issue for the November ballot.

Last month, the group said it submitted about 11% more signatures than needed to place the proposed constitutional amendment before voters. The issue needed about 117,000 signatures statewide; about 130,000 were submitted, including 52,995 in Douglas County.

Former State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a spokesman for the pro-gambling group, acknowledged Wednesday that it would be “challenging to overcome” rejection rates as high as 38% in Douglas County. But he said his group is seeking to discover whether there were discrepancies, or differences, in how the signatures were verified as compared to the past.

“That sound like an unbelievably high rejection rate,” Laytenbaugh said. “Our own verification was showing that our cushion was small, but we though it was sufficient.”

He said that because of recent rumors of trouble with the petitions, he sent a letter to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office on Tuesday, and he submitted a public record request with that office last week.

“We just want to figure how this (high rejection rate) could possible happen,” Lautenbaugh said.

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse and Lancaster County Election Commissioner Dave Shively said the process they used to verify, or disqualify, signature this summer was the same as in past verification efforts.

Verification of the proposed constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling at racetracks – one of three petition issues circulated by the pro-gambling Group – is expected to be completed as early as Friday.

Laura Strimple, a spokeswoman with the Secretary of State’s Office, said she did not know whether other counties report similarly high rejection rates.

To qualify for the ballot, the constitutional amendment portion of the initiative must have valid signatures from 10% of registered voters, or about 117,000 signatures statewide, as well as signatures of at least 5% of the registered voters in 38 of the state’s 93 counties.

The two other petitions, which propose state laws to regulate the expanded gambling and to spell out how tax revenues would be divided, require about 82,000 signatures each to qualify.

In Douglas County, the 38% rejection rate if signatures is more than twice as high as the rejection rate of a successful petition drive last year that placed a death penalty referendum on the November ballot.

Kruse said that only about 15% of the signatures submitted by a pro-death penalty group were disqualified.

Kruse said he did not know why the gambling petition had so many more invalid signatures, but Shively said his office found a higher number of signers who were not registered voters in the county or who had signed petitions more than once.

“You can sign as many times as you want but it’s only going to count once,” Shively said.

The high rejection rate in Douglas County means that only 32,557 of the 52,995 signatures submitted there for the constitutional amendment were valid. In Lancaster County, about 33.5% of the signatures were disqualified, leaving about 13,800 valid signatures.

While it appears that both Douglas and Lancaster Counties would help the gambling petition meet the 5% signature requirement in 38 counties, the nullification of about 27,000 signatures in the two counties would appear to leave the drive well short of reaching the statewide requirement of 117,000.