Internet cafe owners scrambling to get enough valid signatures for voter referendum


COLUMBUS — It’s back to the drawing board for the owners of hundreds of storefront Internet “sweepstakes” cafes that lawmakers are trying to put out of business.

Secretary of State Jon Husted today said the group behind the effort to put the issue to a voter referendum in 2014 came up well short of the roughly 231,000 valid signatures of registered Ohio voters needed.

The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs — consisting of café owners, employees, and some supporters in local government — had filed nearly 434,000 raw signatures, but less than 37 percent survived the scrutiny of county boards of election.

The group now has 10 days to patch the 71,000-signature hole. The petitions also fell short of showing a sufficient amount of support in 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 it falls short again, the law will take effect immediately. It 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 non-cash 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.