The Mega Millions lottery jackpot is now the highest it has ever been; in fact, it is the highest single jackpot in history. This week’s lottery winnings will pay $640 million to the winning ticket holder(s). This news has resulted in record lottery ticket sales across the nation. However, unless you live in the state of Illinois, you will not be able to purchase your lottery tickets online.
Blame it on The Justice Department
The reason for this rests in a decision by the Department of Justice several years ago that discouraged states from selling online lottery tickets. The Justice Department interpreted federal wire tap laws to include online gambling, with the result that states were hesitant to sell lottery tickets online. After all, who can say if the person buying the tickets actually resides in that state? If a person from New York, for example, bought a ticket in Pennsylvania’s online lottery system, the transaction would technically cross state lines and be considered interstate commerce, bringing it under the federal wiretap restrictions.
The Wire Act of 1961 was actually intended to discourage sports betting across state lines, primarily due to the fact that organized crime and others were taking advantage of phone lines to place bets all over certain areas. This was a way to give federal law enforcement the tools to seek out illegal gamblers and punish them. However, states have often been conflicted in the idea that they may be breaking federal law by selling online lottery tickets as well.
Compounding the confusion with this situation is the fact that several large urban areas are close to state lines. For example, the New York metro area includes a large portion of northern New Jersey, and the Philadelphia metro area takes in part of southern New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Chicago’s metro area reaches from close to the Wisconsin border all the way to Indiana. Therefore, several states had a vested interest, for the sake of their lottery programs, in challenging the federal law and allowing online sales of lottery tickets.
The Future of online Lottery Ticket Sales
To date, they have not been very successful in this pursuit. In 2009, the state of New York and the state of Illinois asked for clarification of the Justice Department’s interpretation of the Wire Act as it specifically regarded online sales of lottery tickets to people in neighboring states. However, the Justice Department issued two rather vague rulings on this subject, leading to even more confusion as to how soon online lottery sales would be allowed.
First, in a ruling in September of 2011, the Justice Department issued a statement through the U. S. Attorney General. In this brief, the Attorney General stated that lotteries were not the same as sports wagering, and therefore were not under the aegis of the wiretap law. However, it was December of 2011 before the Justice Department finally codified its ruling, giving the go-ahead to online lottery ticket sales. During the lapse in time, most states hovered uncertainly, unsure if the original opinion would be made into a true ruling on which they could form policy. As a result, no one was really prepared for the December ruling, which came only a day before Christmas Eve of that year.
Because of the short notice and the fact that the ruling appeared at a holiday season when most legislators and policy makers were not on duty, most states were unprepared for the quick turnaround to an online lottery system. So far, the only state to implement its system in time for the Mega Millions drawing this weekend has been Illinois. That state’s program only went into effect last Sunday, March 25. In the five days since then, the state has reportedly sold over $425,000 worth of online lottery tickets for this weekend’s drawing.
While most states will not be ready with their online purchase systems for this Mega Millions drawing, the reversal of its position by the Justice Department will undoubtedly lead to future online lottery ticket sales. In fact, online sales will probably become the most common way of purchasing tickets, just as online shopping and online airline ticket purchases have become the norm rather than the exception. If the Mega Millions jackpot is not awarded this weekend, some states may even have their systems ready for the next drawing, which will be the largest in history and should draw record numbers of lottery ticket buyers in every state. It may be that, three months after the Justice Department’s ruling, one of the first online tickets purchased for the lottery may have the distinction of being awarded the highest ever cash jackpot in the history of lottery programs.