One of the things gamblers fear most, and the house fears being accused of, is a rigged game. But that’s just what New York state had with the wording of the casino gambling referendum voters approved last week. Now that the issue has been settled and New York has legalized non-Indian casinos, it’s time to fix the process so the system can’t be gamed again.
The state Board of Elections is the agency that approves the wording of ballot issues. In most cases, there’s no problem; when there is, it usually has to do with clarity (some of these questions can be complicated).
But this time, the problem was advocacy. In July the Board of Elections had approved a concise ballot question on the casino gambling issue written months before by the attorney general’s office. But in mid-September, after meeting with representatives of the governor’s office, the Board changed the question, asking voters not just if they wanted to allow seven (non-Indian) casinos, but if they wanted to do it “for the purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools and permitting local governments to lower property taxes.” That kind of spin is about as blatant as you can get.
How much did it matter? At the time the new wording was made public, Siena College conducted a poll asking people the simple question if they supported the expansion of casino-style gambling. It was dead even: 46 percent to 46 percent. Then people were asked the loaded question that was to appear on the ballot, and it was 55 percent in favor and only 42 percent opposed. The final vote last Tuesday was 57 percent to 43 percent.
This is a terrible precedent. Unless something is done, the government can influence the vote any time it wants with the right wording. And that something must be done on the legislative side, because a judge in October threw out a lawsuit challenging the wording, saying it was filed too late and had no merit.
The New York Public Interest Research Group has some good proposals for fixing the flaws in the current system.
One is to require a public comment period after the Board of Elections certifies the text of each amendment, which it must do at least three months prior to the general election. But the most important is to require neutral, unbiased language, which current law does not.
New Yorkers have been played for suckers, and even those who favor casino gambling shouldn’t be happy about that. They need to let the governor and Legislature know they want changes in the system before next year’s election. These are, after all, amendments to the constitution, and the state owes it to voters to play it straight.