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How Come State-Sanctioned Gambling Hasn’t Gone Digital Yet?

You can blame gas station owners and taxes for you having to buy your scratchies and lottery tickets in person

Today’s casinos have put the coin slots in storage. No more putting in your pennies, pulling a lever and watching the reel do its mechanical dance of 7s and cherries — now, that dance is digital. 

But one holdover of the good ol’ days of state-sanctioned gambling and screenless thrills remains: the scratch ticket. You might find a vending machine at the grocery store that dispenses them, but by and large, they’re still shilled by some guy behind a counter, in perforated roles, along with the Marlboros. In fact, in most states, you can’t even buy them with a debit card –– cash only. 

Now, I can get weed delivered to my house with limited human interaction, but if I wanna buy into my state’s lottery system, I have to go to a legitimate retailer and pay in cash. What gives?

While gambling has varied in legality throughout American history, state and federal governments began wanting a piece of the pie following the Great Depression. Since then, states have enacted their own laws regarding betting practices, allowing them to tax casino revenue. However, though states may have regulated gambling, it wasn’t until the 1960s that they began coordinating gambling themselves. In 1964, New Hampshire introduced its own lottery, known as the New Hampshire Sweepstakes, which utilized a combination of paper ticket sales, a rotating plexiglass drum of names and horse racing. By 1973, eight other states had similar systems. 

At that time, computer scientist John Koza was working for a company that developed free sweepstakes systems used in grocery stores for coupons and deals, wherein shoppers would match the results of wax-coated, scratch-off cards to flyers in the store. As per Mental Floss, Koza helped calculate the odds of winning and the randomization of the winning cards. After being fired from this job, Koza figured this kind of system could be incorporated at a state-wide level, integrating the system of matching winning numbers or symbols onto one scratch-off card, revealing winnings instantly. 

In 1974, Massachusetts became the first state to take Koza up on his concept, selling $2.7 million worth of scratchies in the first week alone. Today, all but six states have adopted the system –– Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah and, most surprisingly, Nevada. These six states also don’t offer multi-state, national lotteries like Powerball, which began as a televised lottery in 1992. 

To keep tax revenue inside state lines, it’s illegal to mail tickets from state to state, and for this reason, there also aren’t any U.S.-based online gambling sites (these are federally illegal to operate, but online gambling in itself isn’t, so people looking to make bets or play poker are required to do so on sites based overseas). However, some states have finally caught wind of this whole internet thing, and have established means of legally purchasing lottery tickets online. Seven states have passed legislation allowing for it, but only five currently offer online sales: Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. In order to play, one must provide their Social Security number and a state address. For the most part, these online systems follow the same formula as scratch-off tickets: You have a set of winning numbers and a set of playing numbers that you must click to “scratch” and unveil whether there’s a match. 

For the remainder of the country, a big reason for the continued analog distribution of lottery tickets is the lobbying of convenience stores and gas stations. Scratch tickets and other physical lottery games like Powerball can be a huge draw for customers to enter a shop, and when they do, they’re likely to buy something else, as well. Trade organizations for these types of businesses have fought back whenever states have considered opting into digital ticket sales. 

Further, in the majority of states, lottery tickets cannot be purchased with a credit card, although some allow for debit card purchases, or leave it to the discretion of the retailer or card company. According to, the primary reasoning for banning credit cards is that it would enable gambling addiction, further sending people into debt.

So, for the time being, you’re most likely gonna have to pop into your local 7-Eleven for your scratchies and pay in cash. At the very least, you can feel somewhat okay about the fact that state lottery programs tend to fund public schools and universities. Of course, if you really want to gamble without leaving the house, nothing’s stopping you from finding some online blackjack site owned by private individuals in Australia to throw your money into.