COLUMBUS — The operators of hundreds of storefront Internet “sweepstakes” cafes that lawmakers are trying to put out of business came up roughly 71,000 signatures short in their effort to put the issue directly to voters.
The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs — café owners, employees, and some supporters in local government — had filed nearly 434,000 raw signatures, but just 37 percent, 160,008, survived the scrutiny of county boards of election, according to Secretary of State Jon Husted.
The group now has a 10-day uphill battle to patch the hole to reach the minimum of roughly 231,000 signatures needed. The petitions also fell short of showing a sufficient amount of support in a minimum of 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties. It qualified in just 12, including Lucas.
The filing of the initial set of signatures placed House Bill 7 on hold, and it will stay on hold through the November, 2014, referendum if they file enough supplemental signatures. If they fail again, the law will take effect immediately.
“Nearly every statewide initiative in Ohio falls short of the signatures necessary on the first try, which is exactly why the law allows a 10-day period to gather more,” group spokesman Matt Dole said. “Luckily, since polling shows 80 percent of Ohioans oppose banning Internet Sweepstakes Cafes, there are many people willing to sign.”
The law attempts to remove the profit motive from “sweepstakes” machines that lawmakers and Attorney General Mike DeWine contend look and operate too much like slot machines. It would ban cash payouts and cap the value of noncash prizes at $10.
The café operators, however, contend that the machines are promotions designed to sell their real products, long-distance phone cards and Internet time. They say the machines’ cards are preprogrammed with prizes that patrons could cash out even without playing the machines and that the phone cards never lose value, eliminating any risk for the customer.
Slot machines are legal in Ohio only in four voter-approved casinos, including Hollywood Casino on the Toledo riverfront and, in a different form, at horse-racing tracks.
“It looks like Internet café operatives created voters out of thin air because Ohioans wanted no part of these illegal gambling houses,” said Carlo Loparo, spokesman for the opposing Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling. “Submitting more than 270,000 invalid signatures is no honest mistake. This must have been an intentional effort to deceive election workers.”
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.