What is an Official Lottery?

An official lottery is a government-sponsored game in which the prizes, typically cash or goods, are distributed by drawing numbers from a pool of entries. Such games may be conducted for a variety of purposes, including military conscription and commercial promotions in which prizes (property or money) are given away by a random procedure, as well as the selection of jury members in the United States.

The first state-sanctioned lotteries began to emerge in the fifteenth century, with records of towns in the Low Countries raising money for building town fortifications and charity for the poor. The popularity of these lotteries grew in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but they became increasingly controversial, especially among devout Protestants who viewed them as morally unconscionable. By the nineteenth century, state governments were casting around for solutions to their budgetary crises that would not enrage their anti-tax voters.

Lotteries were the answer, but they came with a catch. Although the public could win big prizes, it was not possible to get rich by playing them; winners were required to pay taxes on their winnings. In addition, the large jackpots of the national lotteries made them attractive targets for organized crime. The scandals, bribery, and corruption that characterized many lotteries of the time caused the public to lose faith in these gambling operations. As a result, by the mid-twentieth century, states had almost completely abolished their lotteries, leaving only two in operation. However, a number of illegal lotteries continued to operate.