Nebraska Supreme Court May Decide Whether Casino Gambling Makes November Ballot

Posted on September 3, 2020 - Last Updated on September 13, 2020

If Nebraska voters get the opportunity to vote on whether to allow casinos in their state this fall, it may require an act of the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Nonetheless, the Nebraska casino referendum is on life support right now.

NE Secretary of State Bob Evnen has, thus far, refused to put the gaming measures on the November ballot. There may not be sufficient time left to force him to change course, either.

Latest Nebraska casino referendum drama

Evnen has struck down all three potential gaming measures, arguing that none are fit to appear on the ballot for voters in two months. The timing of his decision presents a bad optic.

Nebraska law allows citizens to amend the state’s constitution on their own. If a group records enough petition signatures, that automatically triggers a statewide referendum on the matter at hand.

The group Keep the Money in Nebraska amassed nearly a half-million signatures for its three amendment proposals, far more than the necessary number. The group then presented the petitions to Evnen’s office for placement on the ballot.

Just a simple majority of the vote in November on any one of the three proposals would have, in theory, legalized casino gaming at the state’s racetracks. Recently, however, Evnen threw a wrench in the works.

Evnen ruled that the language of all three measures was confusing, misleading and potentially in violation of other state laws. For those reasons, he refused to certify them for the ballot.

Evnen’s decision came just days after Gov. Pete Ricketts wrote an open letter opposing gambling expansion. While Evnen’s tenure as secretary of state in NE predates Ricketts’ time as governor, they are both Republicans.

Also, what makes Evnen’s behavior look politically motivated is that his office reviewed the language of the ballot measures prior to Keep the Money in Nebraska’s petition drive. At that time, Evnen reported no issues within the wording of any of the proposals.

Because of the lateness of the “hour,” this may spell doom for gambling proponents in the state. There are a few “Hail Marys” left to run, however.

What could happen from here

Nebraska provides an automatic challenge to Evnen’s decision.

The state attorney general’s office will be responsible for essentially arguing that Evnen’s decision was in some way unsound.

It’s uncertain how quickly that will happen, however. With just two months until Election Day, time may not allow for the necessary hearings to happen.

For that reason, Keep the Money in Nebraska hasn’t left it up to the state. It has filed suit against Evnen in the Nebraska Supreme Court, arguing his actions were improper.

The complaint then petitions the court to force Evnen to put the proposals on the ballot. However, there are some potential hurdles ahead.

The court may decline even to hear the case, stating that the group has to go through lower courts in the state first. Additionally, even if it does take up the case, it may run into the same short time frame before Nov. 3.

As things stand right now, it doesn’t look like Nebraska voters will have their say on gambling this fall. For Iowa casinos along the NE border, that would be good news.

Photo by AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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