The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a governmental or quasi-governmental agency that operates a game of chance with a prize for the winners. It can be a numbers game, such as the popular Powerball or Mega Millions, or a scratch-off ticket or video lottery terminal games like Keno. The name “lottery” derives from the fact that it is a game of chance with an element of consideration—that is, you have to pay something for the opportunity to win.

In the modern era, 44 states and Washington, DC run their own lotteries. The six that don’t are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada (the last two are home to gambling paradises Las Vegas). Some states rely on lotteries for public school funding; one famous example was the California lottery campaign that touted its impact on education in the state’s first year. The resulting revenue was, however, far more modest than what the campaign suggested.

Lotteries fell out of favor around the 1800s, partly because of religious and moral sensibilities but also because they were rife with corruption. Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man in Charleston, South Carolina, won a local lottery and used the winnings to buy his freedom. (Although he was later executed for his part in an unsuccessful slave revolt.) The lottery’s return to favor started in the mid-20th century, with the 1934 Puerto Rico lottery and, 30 years later, the New Hampshire Lottery. The game spread rapidly as borders were opened; it isn’t uncommon for a neighboring state to follow suit within several years of the first.