How to Build Public Support for a Lottery


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winner. While the casting of lots for decision-making and determining fates has a long record in human history (it appears multiple times in the Bible), lotteries as commercial enterprises with prizes involving money are only relatively recent. The first recorded public lotteries to offer tickets for a prize in the form of cash took place in the Low Countries during the 15th century.

Before the mid-1970s, state lotteries were essentially traditional raffles: ticket holders would buy entries to be drawn at some future date, weeks or months away, and the prize was often a small amount of money or goods. But the 1970s saw the introduction of innovative games such as scratch-offs and the “quick pick” numbers option, which now accounts for 35 percent of all lottery sales. The following decade, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont banded together to create the first multi-state lottery, the Tri-State Megabucks. These innovations helped state lotteries to quickly catch on.

Today, 44 states and the District of Columbia operate state lotteries. The six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada. The reasons vary, according to the BBC: Alabama and Utah are motivated by religious concerns; Hawaii, which has a high incidence of gambling addiction, is reluctant to encourage it; Mississippi and Nevada already allow lotteries and don’t want a competing entity to cut into their profits; and Alaska has a budget surplus from its oil drilling.

State lotteries are big businesses, generating billions in revenue each year and investing a significant share of those funds back into their operations. But despite the enormous revenues, they also face the challenges of building and maintaining broad public support. In part, this reflects the way state lotteries are promoted: advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to spend their money on lottery tickets, and these targets are not always the same as the state’s population as a whole.

Another important factor is the degree to which a state’s lottery revenues are perceived as benefiting a specific public good, such as education. This argument proves particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when states may be tempted to increase tax rates or cut public services in order to reduce deficits. In fact, however, the popularity of lotteries has little relationship to a state’s actual fiscal health.

Finally, the large jackpots offered by modern lottery games are a major source of publicity and public appeal, as they earn windfall advertising on news websites and TV shows. The size of these jackpots also influences the number of tickets sold, as people rush to invest their spare change in hopes of becoming the next big winner.