Skip to Content

What does lottery based mean?

A lottery based system refers to a process or mechanism where selection or allocation is determined randomly, like a lottery draw. It involves chance and randomness in deciding outcomes, rather than being based on merit, qualifications, or other definitive criteria.

Lottery based approaches are commonly used when there is a scarcity of resources or high demand that exceeds availability for something. Examples include housing unit lotteries, green card lotteries, school admission lotteries, and more. The lottery acts as an unbiased way to distribute limited opportunities when there are more interested parties than there are openings.

Lotteries may be considered more egalitarian than selective systems based on individual attributes. They offer everyone an equal chance at being chosen and avoid biases that could occur in subjective decision making. However, critics argue lotteries may overlook merit and qualifications. Controversy also arises regarding whether lotteries provide true equality of opportunity.

Understanding what lottery based means provides context around policies and programs that use such an allocation method. Examining the pros and cons of lottery based approaches also allows for informed debate regarding when and how they should be applied.

Key Elements of Lottery Based Systems

There are a few key elements that characterize a lottery based system:

  • Random selection – Outcomes are determined at random rather than based on any criteria or judgment.
  • Equal odds – All eligible participants have an equal chance of being selected.
  • Transparency – Lottery policies and procedures are clear and open.
  • Chance – Luck plays a decisive role in the final outcome.
  • Scarcity – There are limited resources or spots available.

These features aim to ensure the lottery is impartial and unprejudiced. Random selection provides everyone an equal shot without filtering based on subjective standards that could introduce bias. The scarcity of the item or opportunity is also what drives the need for a lottery in the first place.

Lottery Based Policies and Programs

There are a variety of policies and programs across different sectors that rely on lottery based systems:


Many affordable housing units use lotteries to allocate spaces or spots on waiting lists. Applicants who meet eligibility criteria are entered into a random lottery draw for available units. This aims to provide fair access to scarce affordable housing openings.


Certain immigration visas, like those issued through the U.S. Diversity Visa Program, use a lottery system. Millions of people apply annually for limited visas, which are awarded randomly through computerized lottery draws.


Oversubscribed schools frequently hold admission lotteries when there are more students than seats available. Applicants are entered into a random lottery to fill open enrollment spots in an unbiased manner.


Some employers use lottery systems to select job candidates for interviews when they receive an overwhelming number of applications.

Resource Allocation

Lotteries are used to distribute limited resources or commodities like hunting licenses, fishing permits, mining rights, and more. Random selection provides a level playing field.

These are just some examples of lottery based allocation methods across different sectors of society. Wherever there is scarcity and excess demand, lotteries offer an impartial approach to distributing limited opportunities.

Lottery Design Considerations

There are several key factors to consider when designing a lottery based system:

  • Eligibility criteria – Requirements must be clearly defined for who can participate in the lottery.
  • Application process – The process to apply or register for the lottery should be transparent and straightforward.
  • Randomization method – The method used to randomly select winners must be unbiased and tamper-proof.
  • Prioritization – Policies may prioritize certain applicants (e.g. local residents) through weighted lottery systems.
  • Administration – Oversight is needed to administer the lottery according to policy rules.
  • Communication – Lottery policies and results should be clearly communicated to the public.

Well-designed lotteries require careful attention to these elements in order to uphold fairness, equality, and transparency.

Advantages of Lottery Based Systems

There are several argued advantages to using a lottery based approach over other allocation methods:

  • Equality – Every eligible applicant has the same random chance of being selected.
  • Impartiality – Random selection avoids subjective decision making and associated biases.
  • Transparency – Lotteries use a clear, open process understood by all participants.
  • Feasibility – Lotteries provide a practical means to allocate resources when demand exceeds supply.
  • Simplicity – The concept of lottery-based selection is straightforward.

These attributes make lottery systems an attractive option when fairness, equity, and feasibility are priorities. Proponents argue lotteries level the playing field and remove human biases.

Disadvantages and Limitations

However, there are also downsides and limitations to consider with lottery based allocation:

  • Chance outcomes – Luck of the draw means merit and qualifications are disregarded.
  • Potential for abuse – Safeguards must be in place to prevent rigging or abuse.
  • Still may exclude – Setting eligibility criteria means some are excluded.
  • Poor transparency – Implementation and administration must still be transparent.
  • Can seem arbitrary – Outcomes decided “by chance” may seem arbitrary.

Critics argue lottery systems fail to account for merit, hard work, and credentials. Random outcomes may seem capricious or unjust. Lotteries must also be carefully implemented to avoid manipulation or exploitative practices.

Key Considerations

There are a few key considerations when evaluating if a lottery based system is appropriate:

  • Is there clear scarcity and excess demand for the item/opportunity being allocated?
  • Is there a reasonable way to assess applicant merit or qualifications?
  • Will the lottery process be transparent, tamper-proof, and publicly verified?
  • Are eligibility criteria fair and aligned with policy objectives?
  • Will the lottery be administered competently and impartially?

The answers to these questions can shape whether a lottery is sensible for the situation. Lotteries may not be ideal if applicant merit can be measured objectively or if transparency cannot be guaranteed.

Ethical Concerns

There are some ethical issues to weigh with lottery based allocation systems:

  • Fairness – Are lotteries truly egalitarian, or do they ignore merit and contributions?
  • Justice – Is chance the right way to dispense scarce resources or opportunities?
  • Equity – Do lotteries provide equal chances or equal outcomes?
  • Social impact – How do lottery outcomes affect communities and social conditions?
  • Oversight – Can abuses of the system be prevented?

These concerns prompt debates around whether lottery based systems are ethical approaches to distribution. Critics contend they may not actually be meritocratic or maximize social welfare.

Notable Examples

Here are some notable real-world examples of lottery based allocation:

Green Card Lottery

The U.S. Diversity Visa Program uses a lottery system to award 50,000 permanent resident green cards annually. Millions of people apply, and a computer randomly selects winners. The lottery aims to diversify the immigrant population in the U.S.

Education Lotteries

Many charter schools and schools of choice use random lotteries for enrollment. Whendemand exceeds capacity, lotteries are seen as the fairest way to allocate limited spots.

COVID Vaccine Allocation

Some U.S. states initially used lottery systems to allocate scarce COVID-19 vaccines when supply was limited. Random selection aimed to keep distribution ethical and unbiased.

H-1B Visa Lottery

Only 85,000 H-1B temporary skilled worker visas are issued annually in the U.S. A cap-subject lottery randomly selects from excess applicants to award visas.

Broadway Ticket Lotteries

Popular Broadway shows like Hamilton and Wicked use digital lotteries to sell limited $10 front row tickets. This provides affordable access to in-demand shows.

These examples demonstrate how lotteries are commonly used to allocate scarce resources, opportunities, and commodities in different sectors.

Alternatives to Lottery Based Systems

There are alternatives that can be used besides lottery based allocation. Some other approaches include:

  • First come, first served – Resources go to those who apply earliest.
  • Needs-based – Resources are allocated by assessing comparative needs.
  • Merit-based – Resources go to those judged most qualified or deserving.
  • Price-based – Resources go to those willing and able to pay the most.
  • Quota-based – Resources are distributed across pre-set demographic quotas.

However, each approach has its own advantages and disadvantages. There is no perfect system, but lottery critiques argue alternatives like merit-based may be more ethical or effective.

Hybrid Approaches

Some systems blend lottery-based and alternative allocation methods. Hybrid approaches try to balance the benefits of different models. Examples include:

  • Needs-based lottery eligibility criteria
  • Merit-weighted lottery systems (i.e. more chances for those with higher test scores)
  • Two-stage processes with lottery used to select interview candidates from applicant pool
  • Quota-based lotteries to allocate resources across geographic regions

Hybrid systems aim to capture elements of lottery impartiality while also factoring in needs, qualifications, diversity goals, or other policy priorities.

Use in Other Contexts

While lotteries are often used to allocate resources and opportunities, they have applications in other contexts as well:

  • Research – Random sampling is a key principle of experimental design in fields like medicine and social science.
  • Gambling/gaming – Lotteries are central to various gambling and gaming activities like state lotteries, bingo, raffles, and sweepstakes.
  • Political selection – Sortition, the idea of selecting political officials at random by lottery, has been proposed as an alternative to elections by figures like Montesquieu.
  • Jury duty – Jurors are often selected through a random lottery-like process rather than by qualification.
  • Military conscription – Historical draft lotteries randomly selected citizens for compulsory military service.

These examples demonstrate how lotteries have been invoked across many aspects of society for tasks like random sampling, gambling mechanisms, political selection, and more.


Here are some resources to learn more about lottery based allocation systems:

These reports, research analyses, explainers, and more can help provide greater understanding of how and when lottery based allocation is utilized.


In summary, a lottery based system refers to allocating resources, opportunities, or other limited commodities based on random chance rather than individual merit or qualifications. Lotteries aim to provide unbiased, transparent means of distribution when demand exceeds supply. They are commonly used for policies and programs related to housing, immigration, education, and more. Advocates argue lotteries are egalitarian, while critics contend they fail to account for merit and ethics. Hybrid approaches sometimes combine lottery systems with needs-based, merit-based, or quota-based allocation. Ultimately, there are many factors to weigh regarding fairness, ethics, and effectiveness when considering lottery based allocation policies.