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Why is the lottery illegal in Nevada?

Nevada is the only state in the United States that prohibits all forms of lottery games, including scratch cards, Powerball, Mega Millions, and other national lottery games. This unique prohibition on lottery activities has existed since 1909, when Nevada first criminalized all forms of lotteries in its state constitution.

The Early History of Gambling in Nevada

To understand why the lottery is banned in Nevada, we need to examine the history of legal gambling in the state. During the late 1800s, lotteries and other forms of gambling flourished throughout much of the United States. This was also true in the frontier mining settlements of Nevada, where saloons, gambling halls, and makeshift casinos sprang up to entertain the flood of prospectors hoping to strike it rich.

In 1869, just two years after statehood, the Nevada legislature approved a statute to provide licensing for gambling games like faro, monte, roulette, keno, and other popular casino games of the era. The law was intended to raise revenue for the state. However, there was no provision made for lottery games. Lotteries had developed a bad reputation around this time, as unscrupulous promoters frequently absconded with the prize money, leaving ticket holders empty-handed.

Throughout the late 1800s, lotteries were periodically authorized in Nevada on a temporary basis, but were then discontinued. Lottery proponents pushed to have lottery provisions inserted into Nevada’s state constitution in 1864 and 1889 during the drafting of those documents, but were defeated both times. The majority of delegates viewed lotteries as a form of gambling that was susceptible to corruption and fraud, and they did not want lotteries permanently enshrined in the state’s founding law.

Nevada Outlaws Lotteries in Its 1910 State Constitution

When delegates gathered for Nevada’s 1910 constitutional convention, sentiment against lotteries had hardened even further. At this point, the population centers of Nevada had developed a thriving tourism industry centered on gambling, while lotteries were seen as isolating and impoverishing mainly the poor. The delegates specifically debated whether to include an outright ban on lotteries in the new constitution. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of a prohibition.

Article 4, Section 24 of Nevada’s 1910 constitution reads:

“No lottery shall be authorized by this State, nor shall the sale of lottery tickets be allowed.”

With this simple clause, the delegates expressly banned all state-sponsored lotteries, as well as the sales of tickets for lottery games held in other states. Nevada’s anti-lottery stance was now enshrined as a constitutional principle.

Reasons Behind the Lottery Ban

So what were the reasons and motivations behind Nevada’s decision to ban lotteries in its constitution? There were several driving factors:

  • Opposition to gambling on moral grounds – Some delegates felt gambling of any kind was immoral, and did not want the state promoting this kind of activity through a state-run lottery.
  • Perceived links to organized crime – There were concerns that lotteries could become corrupted by criminal groups seeking to launder money or fix drawings.
  • Protection of Nevada casinos – With an economy dependent on gambling, delegates worried that lotteries would compete with existing casinos for gambling dollars.
  • Prevention of compulsive gambling – Lotteries were seen as particularly addictive, allowing easy access to gambling through simple ticket purchases.
  • Regressive taxation – Lotteries were faulted for disproportionately burdening lower income residents, who made up the bulk of ticket purchasers.

The ban on lotteries was a decision reflective of the time period. In a fast-growing frontier state dependent on gambling tourism, delegates felt that lotteries had more downsides than upsides. The lottery prohibition was folded directly into the state’s constitution to make sure it stuck.

1908-09 Anti-Gambling Movement

Another crucial factor providing momentum to the anti-lottery clause in 1910 was the strong push against gambling of all kinds that arose in Nevada during 1908-09. This was led by reformers who wanted to shut down the emerging casino industry in cities like Reno and Las Vegas.

A new anti-gambling law called the CAP Act was passed in 1909, which banned slot machines, roulette wheels, craps games, and other staple casino games. Enforcing agencies like the SCPP (State Crime and Punishment Police) were established to crack down on underground gambling halls and seize equipment. For two years, the CAP Act largely succeeded in eliminating professional gambling establishments.

This moral crusade against gambling created an environment that was receptive to banning lotteries as well. If casino games like blackjack were to be driven out, lottery activities would likely receive no quarter. So the constitutional convention convened at a time when public attitudes were strongly against gambling, which helps explain the decisive action against lotteries.

Repeals of the CAP Act

Ironically, just a year after the lottery ban was enshrined in the state constitution, the political climate shifted again. The enforcement of the CAP Act proved extremely difficult, and organized crime flourished in the underground gambling scene. In 1911, gaming interests organized to successfully lobby for the repeal of the CAP Act and the restoration of regulated gambling.

In 1931, gambling was formally re-legalized in Nevada. This triggered a resurgence of casinos and gambling houses. However, lotteries remained banned under the state constitution. While casino games were now welcomed as an economic driver, lotteries continued to be viewed negatively for the reasons outlined earlier.

Failed Challenges to the Lottery Ban

In the many decades since the constitutional ban on lotteries was enacted, there have been several attempts by legislators and activists to challenge this prohibition or work around it, without success. For example:

  • In 1963, State Senator Howard McKissick of Reno sponsored a bill to establish a state lottery, arguing that it would provide a new revenue stream for education and other social services. The Nevada Supreme Court rejected this law as unconstitutional.
  • In 1975, the issue went before voters in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment to allow a state lottery. However, it failed to gain majority approval, with only 43% voting yes.
  • In 1985, a charity called the Vietnam Veterans of America held a “Millionaire Party” sweepstakes in Las Vegas, selling tickets across state lines. They claimed this was not a lottery but a contest. Nonetheless, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled it was essentially a lottery and ordered it shut down.
  • Over the years, a number of legislators have introduced bills trying to authorize slot machines or video lottery terminals (VLTs). However, the Nevada Attorney General’s office has consistently interpreted these as prohibited lotteries also.

Time and again, efforts to institute any kind of lottery in Nevada have run up against the rock-solid constitutional prohibition. While the public’s moral views on casino gambling may have shifted, the core objections to state-run lotteries remain.

Lotteries vs. Casino Gaming

To summarize the key differences, in 1910 the authors of Nevada’s constitution considered casino games like slots, blackjack, craps, and roulette to be acceptable forms of gambling for tourism. But they viewed lotteries as particularly pernicious and likely to cause social harm. Lawmakers intentionally promoted one form of gambling while prohibiting the other.

Their rationale was that casino gaming was a closed system confined to gambling venues patronized by tourists, rather than broadly available to locals. It was seen as less likely to foment compulsive gambling, as reaching a casino required planning and effort. Casino gaming was also subject to strict regulation, with observant staff able to spot problem gamblers. Additionally, casinos provided local employment and stimulated hospitality businesses.

In contrast, lottery tickets could be purchased spontaneously almost anywhere by anyone, including compulsive gamblers. Lotteries were regarded as highly addictive “games of chance” where results depended entirely on random luck rather than skill. Lotteries were also criticized as regressive taxes on the poor. While times have changed, these core objections remain ingrained in Nevada’s constitution.

Modern Attempts to Legalize Lotteries

In recent decades, interest has resurfaced in legalizing lotteries in Nevada for the potential revenue they could generate. Supporters argue that popular national lottery games have created millions of winners across the U.S. They contend that lotteries are no more addictive or harmful than casino games already permitted in the state.

In 2015, a poll found that 58% of Nevadans supported legalizing lotteries, indicating a possible shift in public attitudes. However, significant political hurdles remain due to the constitutional ban. Any successful attempt to legalize lotteries would require years of effort:

  • The state legislature would need to approve a proposed constitutional amendment by two consecutive sessions.
  • This proposed amendment would then need to be passed by public referendum on the next general election ballot.
  • Finally, if voters approved the amendment, the legislature would need to write laws establishing a state lottery agency and regulatory framework.

This arduous process makes overturning the century-old lottery prohibition extremely challenging. Powerful lobbying groups like the casino industry remain opposed to lotteries as competition. Moral objections also persist for some factions. While the debate continues, the constitutional ban stands firm.

The Future of Lotteries in Nevada

Looking ahead, it remains highly uncertain whether lotteries will ever take root in Nevada. Despite greater public acceptance of gambling, entrenched political interests and legal bureaucracy make lottery legalization an uphill battle. The need for a constitutional amendment raises the bar for change considerably.

However, lotteries also enjoy strong advocates who covet potential tax revenue for the state. For a sense of scale, the California lottery generates over $7 billion annually for education funding. As younger voters with new attitudes emerge, political pressure may build for Nevada to capitalize on this revenue stream as well.

Ultimately, whether the Nevada constitution gets amended to permit lotteries will depend on when public sentiment reaches a strong enough tipping point. For now, the Silver State remains unique in its categorical ban on any games of chance using tickets and drawings. But in the fast-changing landscape of gambling laws, even longstanding constitutional prohibitions are not guaranteed to last forever.

Year Key Event
1869 Nevada legalizes casino gaming but not lotteries
1909 Nevada passes CAP Act banning most forms of gambling
1910 Nevada Constitution bans all lotteries
1931 Gambling re-legalized in Nevada but lottery ban remains
1963 Proposed state lottery ruled unconstitutional
1975 Constitutional amendment to allow lottery defeated
2015 Poll shows 58% of Nevadans support legalizing lotteries

Key Reasons for Nevada’s Lottery Prohibition

  • Moral opposition to gambling
  • Links to organized crime
  • Protection of casino industry
  • Prevent compulsive gambling
  • Viewed as regressive taxation

Attempts to Circumvent the Lottery Ban

  • 1963 state lottery proposal ruled unconstitutional
  • 1975 ballot proposition to allow lottery defeated
  • Charity “Millionaire Party” blocked in 1985 as a lottery scheme
  • Bills to allow video lottery terminals denied


In conclusion, Nevada’s century-long prohibition of lotteries stems from a period of moral objection to gambling in the early 20th century. Enshrined in the state constitution, this lottery ban has withstood numerous challenges over the decades. While public attitudes have shifted, overturning a constitutional clause requires tremendous effort. The casino industry’s lobbying clout also hinders change. For now, the Silver State remains the sole holdout against government-sponsored lottery games, thanks to longstanding historical policies rooted in its unique gaming culture.