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Group seeks to overturn sweepstakes ban

More than 430,000 signatures turned in for November 2014 ballot issue.

Petitioners seeking to overturn a new ban on Internet sweepstakes cafes turned in more than 430,000 signatures to put the referendum on the November 2014 ballot.

The Committee to Protect Ohio Jobs needs more than 231,148 valid signatures and a significant number from at least 44 of Ohio’s 88 counties to delay implementation of House Bill 7 until next year. Petition signatures will be sent to county boards of election to verify the signers reside in Ohio.

Sweepstakes cafes sell Internet or phone time with free sweepstakes points that can be used to play slots-like games played on computers. An estimated 800 cafes operated at one time, but the new law’s requirement that businesses register with the attorney general’s office revealed only 339 are currently in operation. The Miami Valley is home to about 30 registered cafes.

Attorney General Mike DeWine has said the cafes, a cash-only business, are ripe for money laundering, illegal gambling and other illegal activity. Cafe owners say most businesses offer a legitimate sweepstakes and they want to be regulated.

“Anybody who plays a McDonald’s Monopoly game knows that sweepstakes are legal across the country and in Ohio,” campaign spokesman Matt Dole told reporters. “If somebody is operating slot machines or something else that is against the laws in Ohio, we’re in favor of shutting them down.”

Dole said the group turned in 433,884 signatures with signatures from every county, with the help of hundreds of paid and volunteer signature gatherers.

The group is the first to petition for referendum under a new law enacted earlier this year that reduces the time available to collect signatures. Previously, groups could continue gathering signatures after turning in the first batch. The new law requires groups to halt collecting signatures while boards of election verify their authenticity, the collecting of new signatures to a 10-day bonus period.

The referendum would trigger a costly battle between the cafes and software companies and Ohio’s casinos, which were written into the state’s constitution by voters through a 2009 ballot issue.

Ohioans Against Illegal Gambling, an opposition group backed by the casinos, said the petition effort has been wrought with deceptive tactics and misinformation.

“Internet cafe operatives have resorted to deception, mischaracterizations and plain old fashion lying to collect their signatures,” spokesman Carlo LoParo said in a statement. “Individuals who signed these petitions would be surprised to learn they were not supporting a Justice Department investigation of the George Zimmerman jury verdict, among other things.”

The pro-Internet cafe group raised $641,500 during the first six months of the year, mostly from a South Carolina-based sweepstakes software company and a dozen Ohio Internet cafes, according to campaign finance reports. The group spent $551,250 for paid signature gatherers during that time.

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