Oct 18, 2023 - News

The hard sell for Richmond's casino referendum

Animated illustration of a slot machine screen with casino chips, and dice rolling by before it stops on three checkmarks.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

What's it take to get a reticent voter to the polls?

  • Casino supporters are betting on free Uber rides to early voting locations plus free lunch when voters get there.

What's happening: With more than $8 million to spend on this year's referendum campaign, the pro-casino campaigners are sparing no expense to turn out voters for what is otherwise a sleepy election year in the city.

Why it matters: It's an unprecedented amount of money to throw at a local referendum campaign in Virginia.

  • The campaign is on track to spend more than $100-per-vote cast, assuming a similar turnout to 2021.

Details: First, the Uber rides.

  • Canvassers with Unite Here say they've shifted from simply urging residents who answer their doors to vote yes. Now they're asking supporters to climb into an Uber bound for an early voting location and vote yes now.
  • Field organizers with the union, which received $800,000 from the casino's would-be developers, outlined the strategy during a pre-canvass meeting last week, telling staff that anyone who gets 10 voters into cars to vote will receive prizes like branded hoodies.

When voters arrive at the polls, a rotating cast of food trucks awaits.

  • At Hickory Hill Community Center, an attendant handed out free lunch tickets for Hawk's BBQ — no questions asked about how you voted or even whether you voted.
  • The day's menu included a pork sandwich, two pieces of fried fish or a jumbo kielbasa — all served with a drink and a side of fries or mac and cheese.

What they're saying: "We're celebrating early voting," said Michael Kelly, a spokesperson for the referendum campaign. "I don't know if it's that different than giving people water and snacks in line."

Zoom out: The developers' PAC spent $6 million on the campaign over the past two months, per campaign finance reports filed this week.

  • That includes $1.8 million on television, radio and other advertisements, just under $1 million to hire a team of 75 canvassers, plus another $800,000 contribution to Unite Here's canvassing efforts.
  • Kelly said the spending reflects the campaign's focus on one-on-one interactions with voters, which he said is expensive.

The other side: By comparison, the project's opponents are operating on a shoestring budget, reporting $259,000 in total contributions so far, with just $24,000 in cash on hand headed into the final stretch of the race.

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