Commentary: High court must keep amendment to end dog racing on November ballot

Published on 8/13/18 by Christine A. Dorchak

The inevitable end to greyhound racing took a strange detour on Aug. 1 when Second Circuit Judge Karen Gievers ruled that Floridians should not be allowed to vote on Amendment 13 this November. The judge found that the title of this humane proposal (“Ends dog racing”) is not clear enough for the people of Florida to understand, and that without further guidance, they might believe they were voting to stop dog racing in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas or even West Virginia. This is a poorly reasoned ruling, and will likely be overturned.

Florida courts have time and again instructed that a ballot title and summary must be read together so as “to provide fair notice” and “state in clear and unambiguous language the chief purpose of the measure.” According to binding precedents, it is not the lack of impact but rather the impact of a proposed amendment that should be described. Amendment 13 passes this test with flying colors, and actually goes above and beyond by telling voters that there will be no impact on slot-machine gambling.

Amendment 13 assures voters in its ballot summary that just as commercial dog racing is phased out by 2020, “other gaming activities are not affected.” What Gievers describes as a “material omission” is not material and not an omission at all. In Evans v. Firestone of 1984, the high court established that ballot language should “tell the voter the legal effect of the amendment and no more.” This also sets aside the judge’s quibble that aspirational language about the value of animal protection should also have been spelled out in a short summary of limited words.

In short, the judge claims that voters should be denied a voice because Amendment 13 “would not end dog racing.” But that is exactly what it would do. And there’s the rub.

Since 1931, when Florida became the first state to legalize the newly invented “sport” of greyhound racing, it has played host to more dog tracks than any other. Dog tracks sought to promote themselves as elite and glamorous, but the truth about racing has now been revealed in state documents, financial reports and testimony from track workers.

Kept in warehouse-style kennels, in rows of stacked metal cages for much of the day, the dogs are fed a diet based on raw, diseased meat. When let out of their cages to race several times a month, they face the risk of serious injury, such as broken legs, crushed skulls, snapped necks, paralysis and heat strokes. Some dogs have even been electrocuted while racing. According to information gathered by the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, a greyhound dies every three days at Florida’s 11 racetracks.

Cheating is another hallmark of this industry. Over the past decade, there have been more than 400 positive test results for various drugs in greyhounds, including 70 for cocaine metabolites. Females are routinely given anabolic steroids to build muscle and prevent loss of race days during their heat cycles, a practice which prompts both animal-welfare and race-fixing concerns.

Thankfully, dog racing is now illegal in 40 states, and since 1990, the amount of money wagered on dog racing in the Sunshine State has plummeted by 74 percent. Tax revenue has declined by 98 percent during the same period, and the tracks themselves now lose a combined average of about $34 million on racing annually. If it were not for a state mandate requiring racetracks to offer a minimum number of races as the platform for other, more popular forms of gambling, this antiquated activity would have ended long ago. Until it does, the state will continue to waste millions regulating this dying industry.

Statewide polling shows that Florida voters will vote yes to end dog racing if they are fully informed about its humane and economic problems. Thankfully, the state Supreme Court has agreed to review Amendment 13, and greyhound advocates remain confident that our gentle friends will soon be off their oval tracks and on a straight path to loving homes.

Christine A. Dorchak is president and general counsel of GREY2K USA Worldwide. She is one of the drafters of Florida’s Amendment 13.