Poll: Floridians say their votes should decide gambling issue

More than 3 in 4 Floridians surveyed say voters should have to approve a gambling deal.
Gamblers play slot machines in an expanded area of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. A report commissioned by the Legislature has determined that Florida is saturated in gambling and expansion would have, at best, a moderately positive economic effect on the state.
Gamblers play slot machines in an expanded area of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. A report commissioned by the Legislature has determined that Florida is saturated in gambling and expansion would have, at best, a moderately positive economic effect on the state.
Published May 5, 2021|Updated May 5, 2021

TALLAHASSEE -- In what may be a warning shot to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature in their pursuit of a gambling deal that will legalize mobile sports betting in Florida, a new poll commissioned by No Casinos shows 76% of Floridians surveyed say voters should have to approve.

Under the compact, signed by the governor and the Seminole Tribe 10 days ago, anyone who is over 21, and located within the state of Florida and has a sports betting app on their mobile device, could place a bet on any professional and collegiate sports team and individual performance, motor sports event and Olympic competition.

All bets would be routed through servers located on tribal land and the Seminole Tribe would be the exclusive operator of the digital sports books in Florida for the next 30 years. In return, the Tribe agrees to pay the state a minimum of $500 million annually.

Under federal and state law, the Florida Legislature and the federal government must approve of any gaming deal between the Tribe and the state before it can take effect. Legislative leaders on Wednesday formally scheduled the week of May 17-21 for a special session to vote on ratification of a compact, create a new gaming commission to regulate all parimutuel and casino gambling and end the requirement that parimutuels conduct live racing or jai-alai matches to operate card rooms or slot machines.

But opponents of expanded gambling in Florida say that a constitutional amendment passed by 71% of voters in 2018 requires that an expansion of gambling needs to be approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

Does Amendment 3 apply to this?

There is debate whether the compact, including sports betting, is covered under the 2018 amendment but when pollsters asked if voters or the governor and Legislature should approve of the agreement, 79% of likely voters surveyed said that it does fall under the amendment, while 13% said lawmakers can approve it without a statewide vote.

“Most voters believe that the compact’s predicate that having the computer system hub that hosts online gambling on tribal property constitutes gambling as being on tribal lands does not pass the ‘smell test,’ “said pollsters Jim McLaughlin and Rob Schmidt in a memo released Wednesday for No Casinos. The statewide survey of 800 likely 2022 general election voters was conducted April 29 through May 2.

The statewide survey of 800 likely 2022 general election voters was conducted April 29 through May 2. Participants were selected to reflect the state’s racial, ethnic and gender demographics and voters were reached via live telephone calls and text messages. A demographic breakdown of the participants provided to the Herald/Times showed the poll over-indexed for likely voters who are 65 and older and under-indexed for people who self identified as Black or Hispanic.

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“An overwhelming number of Florida voters, regardless of their feelings on the issue of gambling, believe that voters, not politicians in Tallahassee and Washington, should have the final say on whether to expand gambling,’' McLaughlin and Schmidt wrote.

That contention, however, is widely disputed by lawyers for the Tribe, the governor’s office and legislative leaders, particularly Senate President Wilton Simpson, who are eagerly pushing the deal. In addition to allowing Florida to join 30 other states to offer mobile sports betting, it also gives the Tribe monopoly control of full casino games in Florida, which will now include craps and roulette on top of slot machines and other casino card games.

They argue that because Amendment 3 excluded an expansion of gambling offered in a compact with a native American tribe, the proposal to have online sports gambling hosted on servers at tribal casinos meets the legal test of being gambling “on tribal lands” and does not need statewide voter approval.

What about moving gambling permits to other sites?

The pollsters also asked about the prospect in the agreement with the Tribe that would allow South Florida casino operators to move their casinos to other sites. The provision is believed to be aimed at Jeffrey Soffer, the real estate mogul who wants to transfer his casino permit from the Big Easy in Hallandale Beach to the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, a concept known as portability, and former President Donald Trump, who may be attempting. to obtain a casino license for his golf resort in Doral. Such moves will require legislative approval in a separate parimutuel bill, which was not included in the special session agenda.

Pollsters said 51% of Florida respondents said they opposed the concept of “portability” of licenses for South Florida casinos while 31% said they approve of it.

No Casinos organized the campaign to get Amendment 3 on the ballot and win overwhelming voter support for it. The effort was financed in part from traditional gaming opponents, which have long included the Orlando theme parks of Disney and MGM Studios and also included funding from the Seminole Tribe. It is unclear whether Disney will oppose the compact’s inclusion of mobile sports betting because the company owns ESPN and could potentially benefit from gaming on its channels.

The pollsters also concluded that voter intensity is high on this issue, with 72% saying they would be more likely to vote for a candidate for the Legislature “who wants the voters to decide this issue rather than a candidate who wants to expand gambling and legalize sports betting without voter approval.”

The pollsters said that 50% of respondents agreed with this statement: “Opponents of this agreement who say approving this deal without giving voters the final say violates a constitutional amendment that 71 percent of Florida voters approved.”

Only 29% of respondents agreed with this statement: “Supporters of this agreement who [cq] say this deal does not require voter approval. No matter where in Florida the person placing the bet is located this new betting is technically occurring on tribal lands because the computer system that manages the online betting will be located on tribal lands.”

DeSantis defends the agreement

DeSantis defended the deal as needed because mobile sports betting “is going on anyways,” with betting opportunities from overseas operators. By allowing the state to make the Tribe the sole provider, the Tribe can share the revenue from it with the state and the state can regulate the betting activities, he said.

He also said he was prepared for the onslaught of legal arguments against the agreement.

“There are are all kinds of arguments people will throw out there but ... this is operated by the Tribe, operated on tribal lands, and I think it satisfies Amendment 3,’' DeSantis said when signing the deal. “If somebody wants to contest that, both the Tribe and the state will be defending the agreement.”

The poll also shows No Casinos is prepared to highlight the dangers of gambling addiction if sports betting were allowed to come to Florida. Although much of the poll was not released, the pollster did release findings on a series of questions designed to influence voters in several ways.

For example, they asked voters if they were persuaded by the argument that the proposal “is blatantly unconstitutional because 71% of Florida voters just passed a constitutional amendment three years ago requiring all gambling expansion to be approved by a vote of the people, not by politicians in Tallahassee.” Two-thirds (66%) said they are persuaded by that argument.

Pollsters also read likely voters being polled this statement: “Times have changed and if people want to gamble they should be able to do so. However, we must follow the law and Florida’s Constitution to allow people to vote on this issue. This proposal is nothing more than a backroom deal put together by special interests who are using their wealth and clout to pass something that voters are supposed to have the final say in.” Fifty-eight percent of the respondents found that statement convincing.

Finally, 59% responded that they do not support giving the Seminole Tribe a gambling monopoly.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at and @MaryEllenKlas