What is an Official Lottery?

An official lottery is a government-sponsored game of chance in which players pay a nominal amount for the opportunity to win a large prize. The prize money is generally not greater than the amount paid by participants; hence, it can be characterized as “voluntary.” In modern times, governments sponsor a variety of lotteries, from public ones to those for military conscription and commercial promotions in which property or services are given away in a random selection process.

Lotteries have a long and complicated history in the United States. In the 1740s, the colonies held many private and state lotteries to raise money for such projects as roads, bridges, canals, colleges, schools, and churches. The Continental Congress attempted to hold a lottery to finance the Revolution, but that effort failed.

Despite their controversial nature, public lotteries remain a popular source of revenue in many states. In fiscal year 1991-92, a California lottery sold so few tickets that it failed to meet its budgetary goals. After that, proponents of legalization stopped arguing that a state lottery would float the entire budget and began promoting it as an alternative to a single line item-invariably education, but sometimes veterans’ services, public parks, or elder care. This new approach made it much easier to campaign for legalization, as voters could argue that a vote for the lottery was not a vote in favor of gambling but a vote to improve a certain government service.

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