TALLAHASSEE - It could easily be Friday or later before Florida knows if voters approved the first state-sanctioned gambling expansion in nearly three decades.
With thousands of absentee ballots still to be processed, opposition to Amendment 4 was leading by less than a 7,000-vote margin late Wednesday - suggesting both machine and hand recounts of the vote could be likely.
If approved, the measure would allow slot machines at seven existing dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if voters in subsequent local elections agree.
Both sides contended they would pick up enough votes in absentee and provisional ballots to win and dispatched attorneys to various counties across the state to monitor counting.
But Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch gambling opponent, was reluctant to make a prediction.
"I was one of the people in the majority, at least right now," Bush said Wednesday. "I voted no. It's as close as possible."
More than 6.8-million ballots were cast on the measure. A machine recount would be required if the preliminary vote count statewide, due at noon today, shows a margin of less than about 34,000 votes. Should that recount, due by noon Friday, show a margin of less than 17,000 votes, a hand recount of ballots would be required.
County elections supervisors would have until Nov. 13 to submit final, official counts on all races to state elections officials.
"It's proof it is a controversial issue," said Glenn Totten, media consultant for Floridians for a Level Playing Field, the parimutuel-backed group that sponsored the measure for the ballot.
But the tight race was also proof of something else. After 26 years in which Floridians overwhelmingly rejected any expansion of state-sanctioned gambling in three separate votes, gambling interests, who pitched their measure as a revenue source for state education, clearly won new allies.
No Casinos, a group opposing Amendment 4, said it was just outspent by gambling proponents.
"It's an absolute testament about politics in Florida that over half of the voters who saw a $15-million advertising blitz still saw through it and just paid attention to what was on the ballot," said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, chairman of No Casinos.
Indeed, campaign finance reports released by the state Wednesday show the parimutuel-backed group spending nearly $16.4-million through Oct. 28 to pass the measure. No Casinos spent less than $300,000.
The new reports also detailed, for the first time, the support behind two opposing mystery groups that entered the advertising blitz late in the race.
Looking to protect its own South Florida gambling sites, the Seminole Tribe of Florida spent $5.6-million from Oct. 12 to Oct. 26 as sole contributor to the No on 4 Committee. And two businesses connected with Gulfstream Park Racing Association, a Hallandale track that stands to benefit from Amendment 4, were behind the $1-million raised for the Committee for Our State's Future.