BRISTOL, Va. — Bristol, Virginia voters can begin casting ballots on the proposed Hard Rock Bristol casino in just 55 days.
The general election is Nov. 3, but a new Virginia law permits “no excuse absentee voting” by mail and in-person early voting starting Sept. 18. This coincides with another law allowing casinos by referendum in five financially challenged cities, including Bristol. Their convergence represents the culmination of more than two years of efforts to legalize gaming in Virginia.
Circuit Judge Sage B. Johnson signed an order July 17 directing that the casino question be placed on the city’s general election ballot. That is the city’s final step in this process, City Manager Randy Eads said Friday.
“Now it will go to the voters, who can begin voting in mid-September,” Eads said.
Only registered city voters will be allowed to vote on the casino question.
The question will read: “Shall casino gaming be permitted at a casino gaming establishment in Bristol Virginia at 500 Gate City Hwy., as may be approved by the Virginia Lottery Board? Yes. No.”
This will mark the first time for extended early voting in Virginia, a practice that has been underway in Tennessee for some time. City Hall and other government buildings are presently closed due to COVID-19.
“My intention is to do absentee voting mostly by our drive-up window because I don’t know if City Hall is going to be open,” General Registrar Penny Limburg said Friday.
“If City Hall is open, we will allow people to come in and vote inside in our office, if they don’t want to vote at the window,” she said. “The last two or three weeks [in October], we will be in the City Council chamber.”
Voters may begin requesting their November absentee ballot now, Limburg said.
“If people know they want a mail absentee ballot to either apply online or call us and we’ll mail an application. … I anticipate having the ballot the first or second week of September. As soon as the ballots come in and the machines are tested and ready to go, we’ll do the mailing as soon as I have ballots.”
Limburg anticipates a record turnout.
“I think the combination of the how the presidential race is shaping up and the casino, I think the casino will be a big driver in turnout,” she said.
Earlier this month, the Virginia Lottery Board pre-certified Hard Rock International, the United Company, Par Ventures and H.R. Bristol, LLC, as qualified and capable of operating a gaming business.
The Hard Rock Bristol project is forecast to create 2,000 jobs with combined annual wages of $90 million and to generate between $15 million and $20 million annually for the city in tax revenues, in addition to the city’s share of gaming tax revenue.
The state board this month also pre-certified similar proposals from the Pamunkey Indian tribe as the preferred operator in Norfolk, Rush Street Gaming to appear on the ballot in Portsmouth and Caesar’s Entertainment in Danville. Richmond officials haven’t selected a preferred operator. While the other four are required by the state law to conduct a referendum by the end of 2020, Richmond isn’t under that constraint.
All operators approved by voters must then undergo a lengthy, more thorough review during the license application process, lottery officials previously said.