Lottery Was Too Late for Nevada

Last month, the Center for Gaming Research posted a paper by Gaming Research Fellow Christopher Wetzel that answered a question I get a lot: Why doesn’t Nevada have a lottery?

Putting on my historian hat, my usual short answer is this: When Nevada legalized “wide-open” casino gambling in 1931, lotteries were still suffering from the stigma rightfully earned by the Louisiana Lottery. The corrupt dealings of “The Serpent,” as it was nicknamed, led to a national backlash against lotteries in the 1890s. A scant 40 years later, when Nevada legalized gambling, lotteries were still borderline repugnant to honest citizens (though illegal policy and numbers games flourished). Phil Tobin took a calculated risk when he introduced a bill to legalize commercial gambling in February 1931; adding a lottery would have made it a dead-end gambit.

By the time other states were legalizing lotteries (New Hampshire led the way in 1963), casino interests that didn’t welcome a state-run competitor were so well-entrenched that a lottery didn’t have much of a chance. So while other states opened their doors to casinos in the ensuing decades, Nevada kept the lottery out.

It wasn’t as if no one thought of the idea: Wetzel’s paper has an appendix listing the various bills that have been introduced to amend Nevada’s constitution to permit a lottery. Since 1967, the legislature has discussed the lottery possibility 14 times. What’s more, a lottery bill has been mooted in every legislative session since 2001.

That’s the how. As a sociologist, Wetzel looked closer at the why of it. You can read the paper for yourself, but I’ll share a few highlights. Essentially, he traces the back-and-forth of lottery opponents and proponents; each of them argues their position based on an understanding of markets as moral. Lottery opponents believe a state-sponsored gaming competitor will unfairly skew the market,
while proponents say that it would be a way of diversifying the state’s gambling offerings.

In any event, I’m glad to see one of the most interesting questions in gambling—why the U.S.’s supposed gambling capital doesn’t have a lottery—get some academic attention. Even if you don’t need ideas for your sociology term paper, it’s a good read about why you can’t buy lottery tickets in Nevada, and why you still probably won’t be able to after the next legislative session.