Maryland’s narrow approval of gambling expansion Tuesday came as a surprise to some observers, after polls suggested that the opposition had a slight edge before the election.
The measure to allow Las Vegas-style table games and put a casino in Prince George’s County scored 52 percent of the vote Tuesday. The plan, Question 7 on the ballot, got a boost not only from voters in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C., suburbs but also from counties in southern Maryland.
“I thought that people were just getting fed up with the advertising,” said Donald Norris, chairman of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Department of Public Policy. “Frankly, I’m surprised that it passed statewide.”
An October Baltimore Sun poll showed 54 percent opposed to expanding gambling. A separate Washington Post showed opposition at 48 percent to 46 percent in favor.
Both Norris and Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, said voters were likely swayed by with promised tax revenues and education funding from table games and the new casino.
Support in southern Maryland counties was logical because slots machines used to be legal in that area, Norris said.
While the machines generated jobs, they also led to allegations of corruption and organized crime, and were outlawed in 1968. Eberly said he thought that history would keep people in the area from supporting it and that the opposition would ultimately carry the day.
“People may not have bad memories,” Eberly said, adding that in a conservative area, people may see generating revenue through slots as a better choice than raising taxes.
Marylanders voted in 2008 to allow slot machine gambling in five jurisdictions, and three casinos — one in Perryville, one at the Ocean Downs racetrack in Berlin and one near Arundel Mills mall in Hanover — are running. A fourth, to be located in Baltimore, is scheduled to open in 2014.
A fierce ad war over gambling expansion was waged by casino owners MGM Resorts International, which supported the measure, and Penn National Gaming, which opposed it. MGM sought to build the major resort and casino at National Harbor in Oxon Hill. Penn National owns Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, W.Va, a popular gaming destination for many Marylanders.
Each company gave more than $40 million to the state ballot issue committees fighting the issue.
“Pro” ads argued that approving the measure would create thousands of jobs and generate as much as $200 million for the state's Education Trust Fund. The “anti” ads argued there was no guarantee that the money would go to education; some even portrayed the state’s use of trust fund money to fund education as a “raid” of the fund.
Prince George’s Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly, who supported Question 7, said her side benefitted because much of the criticism was brought up earlier in the gambling bill debate, giving supporters time to talk to voters and counter the arguments.
Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who opposed slots when he was a state delegate, pitched the waterfront National Harbor development as an ideal site for a major resort and casino earlier this year.
Voters in Prince George’s ultimately supported the measure 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent.
Former Del. Gerron Levi (D-Dist. 23A) of Bowie, who led a coalition called Stop Slots Prince George’s, said Thursday that opponents didn’t manage to saturate voters with messages about the possible social costs of gambling, such as addiction, lost income and debt.
“If we had been able to highlight that argument, it could have given a few percentage points,” Levi said.
While voters on Election Day supported the measure heavily, a majority of Marylanders who voted early opposed the gambling expansion.
“Early voters tend to be the ones most eager to vote, the most passionate,” Eberly said. In this case, much of the passion may have been on the opposition side, but it was still not enough to prevail, he said.