The Evolution of the Lottery and How it Affects State Politics

A lottery is a game of chance in which tokens or numbers are drawn in a random selection process, and the prize is awarded to the lucky winner. Lotteries can also be sponsored by a public body to raise money for a particular project. For example, the British government ran a lottery to help fund its war effort in the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin used one to raise funds for cannons for the city of Philadelphia. Throughout history, people have used the lottery as a way to divide land and property, award jobs, grant prizes for sporting events, and even distribute slaves.

The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were held in the Low Countries, where the practice was common and often tangled up with the slave trade. During the early American colonies, for instance, George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that gave away human beings, while Denmark Vesey won the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions. In America, the lust for large sums of cash was so strong that the country’s first national lottery was launched in 1790, with prizes ranging from land to slaves to silver dollars.

In a world where gambling is legal and state governments are increasingly reliant on revenue from such games, it’s no surprise that many politicians have become enamored of the lottery as a way to boost state budgets without onerous taxes. The lottery, they argue, will make enough money to subsidize the cost of education, elder care, and parks. But those who support the idea of a state-run lottery have begun to take new approaches. They have stopped arguing that the proceeds from the lottery will float most of a state’s budget and instead begun to focus on one specific line item—often veterans’ benefits, but sometimes education or elder care.

This change in strategy has shifted the way that legislators talk about the lottery and is helping to obscure its regressive nature. It has also helped to produce a peculiar dynamic in which the lottery’s evolution is almost entirely a matter of self-interest. Government officials do not have a grand design or vision for the lottery; rather, they inherit policies and a dependency on revenues from state-run lotteries that were set up piecemeal and incrementally.

And these developments are affecting state politics in other ways, too. When state officials no longer see a lottery as a magic bullet that will pay for everything from schools to public parks, they’re less likely to advocate its legalization. This is no coincidence: When it’s no longer possible to sell the lottery as a solution to all of the state’s problems, it becomes a more partisan affair.