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California: sports betting proposal driven by tribes could be voted in 2021



he sports betting initiative driven by California Native American tribes won’t be on the November ballot, but there is a special alternative that would put it in front of voters before 2022.

Jacob Mejia, spokesman for the coalition of tribes backing the initiative, now admits that the small chance he claimed for the initiative to find its way to the ballot this year is closed, given the timing and ongoing restrictions, as reported by Play California.

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.

Statewide special elections aren’t a regular occurrence in California. The last one was in 2009, and there have been three this millennium. The governor or legislature can call for a special election, and with the state facing unpredictable and extraordinary circumstances from the coronavirus pandemic, the likelihood of a special election increases for 2021.

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. 

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.

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 recommenced 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.”

The judge in the court case noted that the petitioners could come back to him seeking another extension if warranted. To make a special election ballot, the tribal initiative needs to have all signatures in and verified by counties.

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