Vote of no confidence

Legally betting on elections in United States would be lucrative, but it could cause trouble for already-shady process.

Vegas.jpg

Betting lines are displayed at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook in June. Could U.S. elections be added to the board one day?

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Bored to tears during the coronavirus lockdown, unable to bet his beloved thoroughbreds through inaccessible techno-avenues in Nevada, Larry Googled “election betting” on his smartphone.

MyBookie popped up. Voilà! Lured by the Bitcoin-friendly operation based in Costa Rica and the exotic — albeit verboten in the United States — nature of his quest for election action, he fed $600 into a new account, earning a $600 bonus.

On May 27, Larry, a casino pal, bet on Catherine Cortez Masto, at 12-1 odds, to become Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate. The next day, the Nevada senator bowed out of contention.

Larry regrouped, plunking some crypto coin on Tammy Duckworth at 22-1. “Then she shot up to 50-1 odds,” he said of the -Illinois senator, “so what do I know?”

He displays President Donald Trump’s reelection odds at minus-120, a $120 risk to win $100. Biden is minus-110. (Care for a Papal punt? U2 front man Bono is 500-1 to one day succeed Francis in the Vatican.)

The other American-soil election-wagering option is Uncle Nate, illicit bookies who lurk in the shadows from Hoboken to Honolulu — perhaps even a back room or two on Wabash — for whom the practice is a quadrennial tradition.

New York always has been a hot spot for such a flutter, where famous oddsman Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder made a windfall on long odds against Harry Truman in 1948 and handicapper Tom Barton capitalized on 6-1 underdog Trump in 2016.

Guess what? Politicians indulge. In 2000, Amarillo Slim, the legendary gambler who played poker with presidents, bet more than $500,000 backing George W. Bush against a prominent Democrat, who had taken Al Gore at even stakes.

They met in Albuquerque, Slim wrote in his memoirs. They posted their loot in a bank. Florida fortune doubled Slim’s money. He wrote, “I’d be the dirtiest son of a bitch in the world if I said who he was. . . . I don’t think his party or his peers would appreciate this getting out. Whoever said presidential history was boring?”

Until April 7, 2020, common law in every state forbade such behavior. Early that evening, though, a pebble pierced those long-placid waters in West Virginia when FanDuel Sports posted odds on the upcoming election — Trump as the minus-110 favorite, Biden at plus-125.

Alas, those tiny waves rippled for fewer than 15 minutes before those numbers were removed. West Virginia lottery director John Myers apologized for having incorrectly authorized their release.

Gov. Jim Justice, whose family owns the famous Greenbrier Resort, which is a FanDuel partner, said, “Absolutely ludicrous. It’s humorous, but it’s ridiculous.” Secretary of State Mac Warner said nobody should be betting on presidential elections, “in West Virginia or anywhere.”

Across the pond, such banter is barmy. Betfair in England and Paddypower in Ireland have extensive menus. Ladbrokes Coral has 50-1 odds on entertainment mogul Kanye West winning in 2024 and 200-1 on Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg becoming president.

Professional bettor Neil Channing, a Briton who has set political odds for several books, expects the next U.S. presidential election to triple the United Kingdom betting action of 2016, which set records.

Back here, Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook vice president Jay Kornegay said election betting in Nevada could be worth 10 to 15 times the handle of a typical Super Bowl, which computes to between $1.5 billion and $2.25 billion.

In one state.

“Look at other parts of the world that do allow wagers on presidential elections,”

Kornegay said. “It’s very, very popular. Can you imagine, if it’s popular over there, how popular would it be here?”

COLORADO’S COATTAILS

Nevada’s sportsbooks have taken in about $150 million, the handle, in each of the NFL’s last three marquee games, making $1.875 billion the average of Kornegay’s projected election handle.

At a quarter of a percent, the federal tax on the state’s sports betting, that’s an extra $5 million to Uncle Sam. To the Silver State, at 6.75%, an extra $127 million would be generated. A reasonable sportsbook profit, or hold, of 4% would produce $75 million.

Every four years.

“From people who have actually booked the election, those are the results I’ve been informed of,” said Kornegay, 56. “A lot of those guys who work [in Costa Rica and other offshore venues] worked in Vegas. I’ve known them for years. They’ve told me, over time, the popularity of the election.”

In the Prairie State, a Feb. 15, 1839, act made election wagering illegal. Today, it’s punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or a year in county jail, or both. In 1973, Nevada bumped its penalty to a gross misdemeanor, carrying a jail sentence of not more than a day less than a year and a fine of up to $2,000.

Richard “Tick” Segerblom, a Las Vegas Democrat and former chair of the Nevada Senate’s Judiciary Committee, tried to eke a federal-election wagering bill through the 2013 Legislature. He told reporters, “I’ve been following elections and betting in London, and they are making a fortune. Why not do it here?”

It passed in the Senate but fizzled in the House. In May 2014, he tried to resuscitate the bill for the 2015 Legislature, but it stalled before a preliminary panel.

“This is a sore subject with me because Nevada has lost millions,” Segerblom, 71, wrote in an email. “No one understands how important betting on elections can be —

especially this year, without sports events.”

The coronavirus shut down sports in mid-March, and they’ve only recently started returning.

At the federal level, the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) might be an election-wagering obstacle. It has allowed political futures trading in low-stakes, nonprofit educational and research circumstances at the University of Iowa and New Zealand’s Victoria University, which operates PredictIt in Washington, D.C.

Would a jurisdiction necessarily expect a joust with the CFTC if its statutes were altered, say, by a groundswell of signatures that get election wagering onto a ballot, whereupon the people approve it?

Said Jill R. Dorson, deputy editor of betting watchdog SportsHandle.com: “I would assume that if a state legalizes betting on elections, then it could move forward.”

New Jersey’s protracted sports-betting battle resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court quashing the 26-year-old Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in May 2018, shifting the legal-wagering option to each state.

Eighteen now have formal sports betting, five are poised for launching and 17 others are fashioning legislation. By the 2024 election, Kornegay believes up to 43 states could have legal sports wagering.

States have been clearing their own paths. Nevada never has allowed bets on the Academy Awards because winners are known, in advance, to at least a few people. But New Jersey allowed it in 2019, and Indiana followed suit this year.

Maybe election wagering will trace marijuana’s scent? Illegal at the federal level, pot could be permissible, in some form, in 40 states by the end of 2020.

In January 2014, Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational cannabis. Those sales were a record $1.75 billion in 2019. In six calendar years, they’ve totaled $7.8 billion. That industry provides 3% of The Centennial State’s $30 billion budget.

“I could see [election wagering] going down the same path,” said Kornegay, a former Air Force brat who calls Colorado his home state. “[With marijuana], as soon as you got Colorado, others followed. A lot of observers saw the tax dollars roll in. Others who were reluctant to even entertain the idea couldn’t overlook the benefits.

“With all these different jurisdictions now accepting sports betting, somebody is going to take the [election-betting] lead, just like New Jersey did with sports wagering, and fight for it. Others will be on their coattails.”

OVER THERE

My first visit to London in May 1996 revealed the country’s obsession with a flutter — a bet, in British parlance. Outside a shop, maybe William Hill, a little sidewalk A-framed blackboard advertised “Yes” and “No” odds, in chalk, on the city temperature hitting a certain degree that summer.

They don’t just yap about the weather in The Big Smoke.

Kornegay heard about one patron asking a British book for odds on Elvis Presley returning to become Prime Minister of England. They produced a figure, and the customer bet it.

“Wow,” Kornegay said, laughing. “They say our system is crazy, offering [a prop bet on Julian] Edelman’s Super Bowl receiving yards to Phil Mickelson’s fourth-round golf score. That’s nothing compared to what those guys can do.”

Neil Channing, the 52-year-old pro punter, wrote in an email from London, “We definitely are a nation of gamblers.”

The National Lottery, he reported, is a TV event every Saturday night. The annual Grand National is a family telly affair, too. Wrote Channing, “People who don’t usually bet will have £1 on a horse with a nice name or colours.”

A Ladbrokes broker told Business Insider that anyone who placed a single pound on Leicester winning the English Premiership, Britain voting to leave the European Union and Trump’s victory, all in 2016, would have won £4.5 million.

The bonus? In England, unlike the States, legal wager winnings aren’t taxable.

And even though a fixed-term parliament act was passed there 10 years ago, general elections are not set in stone. The next one is scheduled for 2024. Odds on it occurring are minus-200.

“Which shows how unpredictable things are,” Channing said. “It’s currently the law that we have an election in 2024 and not before, but this can be changed. And the market thinks it’s a one-in-three chance that something weird will happen to make that so.”

The U.K. is where Conner Streeter conducts most of his betting business, but he is all over the globe. That is not his real name. He resides in Costa Rica or the Caribbean, possibly Bucharest or Budapest. He never has divulged his residence to protect me, he said, as much as himself.

He is heavily involved in election betting. To anyone who believes the election process in the U.S. is ethical, above-board, a model of integrity, he has some harsh news. He dismisses a typical thread that legalized election wagering would sully the institution.

The institution, he insists, already is unclean.

“It would shine a light and expose the fraud,” he wrote in a dense, two-part email. “That’s exactly why Democrats should not want it . . . the anomalies would be glaring.”

As in, why numbers in certain counties are so skewed, and how so many people are turning out. “Simple, because they are cheating,” Streeter said, “bussing people to polls, filling out fake ballots, voting for dead people, etc.”

For some, Illinois in 1960 always will be a grand curiosity. Richard Nixon won 93 of 102 counties. Of nearly 4.76 million total votes, however, John F. Kennedy won the state by fewer than 9,000. Illinois and Texas keyed JFK’s triumph.

Streeter cleaned up on Trump in 2016. Democratic turnout, as he had predicted via reams of excavated data, slipped in certain areas from 2012.

For the 2018 midterms, he pored over numbers from the previous four election cycles. He capitalized in two states and used words to describe his beating in two others — that would have produced a six-figure parlay jackpot, from a nominal investment — that are unfit for a family publication.

Streeter specifies states, cities and counties. Inconsistencies are rife. He insists that betting on politics is not a fair fight.

“You are speculating if corruption has been contained or not,” Streeter said. “If you want to know the real numbers, go to each state and download the numbers and data. Any smart gambler would realize where the [expletive] is within a couple of hours.

“It would be like the first-points prop in the Super Bowl to come by safety, and it happens in five straight Super Bowls. It does not add up or make sense.”

He shared one state’s comprehensive spreadsheet, comparing its 2016 voting figures to 2018. They appear to emanate from different hemispheres.

“That is easily manipulated by rigging a handful of the most populous counties. It’s a vast topic and all over the map . . . all roads lead back to a corrupted process. Anyone who says it isn’t is not unbiasedly looking at the data.”

AN AMERICAN BEAUTY

As Long Island handicapper Tom Barton does, Jimmy “the Greek” poked into crannies and crevices for information, favoring the results of his own legwork, what his senses told him.

Both profited, in the Empire State, on presidential upsets.

University of Michigan historian Paul Rhode claims the clandestine markets erred only once in handicapping a presidential outcome during a long heyday from 1884 to 1940. Polls, pundits and preelection odds, however, have since been erratic barometers.

In 1948, Snyder famously took 10 grand to New York City, where official betting commissioners would set up shop in the finer hotels and financial district. Their updated daily figures made front-page headlines.

He had asked nearly 2,000 women in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, if they trusted a politician with a mustache. At a 5-to-1 clip, they dissented. He bolted east to bet on Harry Truman to defeat the heavy favorite — but mustachioed — New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.

In an upset for the ages, Truman won, 303 electoral votes to 189. At 17-1 odds, “the Greek” made $170,000, approximately $1.8 million in today’s dollars. He likely knew exactly how Truman felt when he held the Chicago Daily Tribune’s infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline to the heavens.

Fifty-two years later, a relieved Amarillo Slim would reference that headline after his dramatic score against an established politician.

And 16 years after that, Barton and wife Abby, with their two young children, trekked west in a rented Mercedes-Benz S550 across the Rust Belt to visit her relatives in Chicago and Springfield.

Upon returning to New York, through the heart of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in June 2016, the sights shocked him.

“Trump sign after Trump sign after Trump sign,” Barton said. “By media reports, you would [have thought] Trump didn’t have a prayer, if you don’t get out that often. I was in the middle of the country — Indiana farms, Pennsylvania farms — and didn’t see a single Hillary sign for 17 hours.”

Tom turned to Abby and said, “He’s gonna win this thing.”

Barton, 43, is a sports-betting regular on several radio circuits. Once word spread about his election selection, show requests piled up.

“I was brought on to be the hilarious let’s-laugh-at-the-Trump guy, to be mocked,” he said. “They were all laughing and joking, nonstop, because I believed [Trump] would win.”

Instead, he laughed last. In another upset for the ages, Trump won 304 electorals to 227; 270 claim the Oval Office. Barton had scattered about a grand, at certain outlets with $250 limits, on Trump at those 6-1 odds.

Barton does not see red or blue — it’s about the green, in his grand scheme to support his family.

“I don’t feel bad about betting on a person who I know is going to win even if I don’t like him or her. That doesn’t factor in it with me,” he said. “I’ll always take advantage of any angle I can get.”

He sympathizes with Streeter, to a point.

“We know voter fraud happens, and on a grand scale at times,” Barton said. “I think, though, there is a difference between ‘tainted’ and ‘rigged.’ There is a large difference between ‘tampering’ and ‘influencing.’

“I worry that large-scale, unlimited [legal] betting would lean toward ‘tampering with’ instead of just ‘influencing’ [elections].”

He recalled a New York Times preelection headline that declared Clinton a 93% shoo-in to win and cringed.

“I stop myself from even calling it bad journalism. It isn’t journalism,” he said. “People will stay home because of that piece. ‘I was going to vote for this guy but, at 93% . . .’ Or, ‘I was going to vote for Hillary, but she doesn’t need my vote. I’ll go to the movies instead.’

“Horrible, horrible, horrible journalism.”

Barton wends through dicey scenarios. With legalization, where would it stop? The Senate and House? Governors? County judgeships? Sheriff?

He concurs that politicos who call election wagering ludicrous are the very people who would most benefit from it, with tax influx to stem ballooning budget deficits. He admits, too, to fairly despising that faction.

“I think politicians, in general, are a shady bunch,” Barton said. “It’s a shady profession, and I don’t want to add . . .”

This is no passing topic, like the weather, to Barton, who possesses a Harvard degree in history with a particularly keen emphasis on the American Revolution.

“It’s my business, and I think it’s too volatile, too many doors being opened,” he said. “There’s a beauty to America and the election process, and I don’t want to see it tarnished.”

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