It's a simple question that requires a complex answer.

Nobody knew who would win the recent billion-dollar Powerball jackpot, but there was one thing for certain: it wasn’t going to be anyone from Mississippi — unless, of course, they recently crossed the state line.

That’s because Mississippi is one of only six states that do not run a lottery to fund education or other public services. Its absence doesn’t usually attract a lot of public attention, but in periods when the country is gripped with it-could-be-me lotto mania, Mississippians start to feel acutely left out:

Why has Mississippi held out? The obvious explanation focuses on the influential opposition of churches or casinos or some unholy alliance of the two. It’s no coincidence that the five other abstainers include Nevada — the only state more dependent on casinos — and Utah — the only state where religion holds more clout. (Alabama, Alaska, and Hawaii are the other three.)

But there’s more to it. In spite of such powerful foes, a majority of the Mississippi legislature and the electorate have actually voted in favor of a lottery in the past. So why do you still have to drive to Louisiana to buy a Powerball ticket? As you’ll see, the explanation has as much to do with process as it does with politics.


Mississippi actually has a long history with state lotteries. So long, in fact, that the earliest lotteries predate the state itself.

In the early 19th century, when Mississippi was still a territory, the legislature routinely authorized lotteries to raise money for education. For instance, in 1803, the legislature established Mississippi’s first institution of higher learning, Jefferson College near Natchez, but provided no public funds for buildings or operations. A private fundraising campaign floundered — after all, there were no alumni to tap for donations — so the board of trustees organized a $10,000 lottery. As Dr. David Sansing conveys in Making Haste Slowly, a history of Mississippi higher education, it was a bust:

Lottery tickets were printed and an extensive sales campaign conducted. But so few tickets were sold that the lottery had to be abandoned in May 1805 and the ticket money refunded. Neither the private contributions nor the lottery produced enough revenue for the college to begin operation.

The college’s experience did not seem to dissuade the territorial legislature from authorizing fundraising lotteries for other nascent institutions, including $25,000 for a masonic lodge in Natchez; $20,000 for Natchez Academy; $5,000 for Franklin Academy in Columbus; $1,000 for Jackson Academy in Wilkinson County; $2,000 for Madison Academy in Port Gibson; $2,000 for Columbian Academy in Marion County; and $5,000 for the First Presbyterian Church of Natchez, which the church’s website carefully notes that it never conducted.

Lotteries went out of fashion with the rise of the Second Great Awakening in the middle of the 19th century, but they reemerged as a convenient, and critical, source of funds in the years after the Civil War. When the University of Mississippi reopened after its wartime hiatus, it was financed, in part, by a $5,000 lottery.

Faced with massive war debts and rebuilding needs, the Reconstruction legislature chartered a statewide lottery in 1867. “The Mississippi Agricultural and Manufacturing Aid Society” was given a 25-year contract by the Legislature to operate public lotteries in exchange for a fixed annual payment to the state and a portion of ticket sales.

It ran into controversy immediately. Many then, as now, questioned the morality of the state profiting from a gambling scheme. The delegates who gathered in 1868 to write a new state constitution agreed, and the document they produced explicitly forbade the authorization of any future lottery and halted the operation of the lottery chartered the year before.

The new constitution was ratified by popular vote in 1869, but the lottery company continued to operate under the terms of its contract. In 1874, its director John Stone and others with the company were arrested for violating the lottery ban. A protracted court battle broke out over the question of whether the lottery charter, executed prior to the new constitution, was protected by the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 1880, the U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously that the state retained the power to enact laws protecting the “public health and morals” even if they overrode contracts the state had entered into. Mississippi’s lottery was dead, but Stone v. Mississippi lives on as an important part of U.S. corporate case law.

When Mississippi’s constitution was rewritten in 1890, the lottery ban was brought forward. It stayed there, untouched, for a century, until Governor Ray Mabus staked his political fortunes on reviving the lottery in the 1990 legislative session.

Mabus saw a lottery much as the early 19th century leaders had: as an expedient way to pay for new educational investments. He was at the forefront of a wave of education-minded Southern governors who advocated lotteries for their states in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Between 1988 and 1993, Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia each created lotteries that, at least in theory, promised funding for schools and scholarships.

But Mabus’s lottery first needed a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the legislature before ratification by a majority of the popular vote. He tied the fate of a monumental education reform package to the legislature’s support for his constitutional change. Despite winning more than two-thirds of the House, it fell six votes short in the Senate — a numerical majority, but not enough to meet the constitutional threshold. His signature education law was destroyed by lotto politics, and, soon, so was Mabus’s career in elective office. In 1991, Republican Kirk Fordice, a lottery opponent, defeated Mabus in a close race. There’s evidence that Mabus’s lotto push helped doom his hopes for reelection. As Jere Nash and Andy Taggart write in their book Mississippi Politics, Mabus’s share of the vote plummeted in counties that opposed the lottery. Had he held his 1987 margins in those areas, he could have won.

Ironically, redistricting prior to the 1991 elections helped make the legislature more supportive of the lottery, and in the 1992 session, the new legislature passed the constitutional repeal for which Mabus had fought so hard. Fifty-three percent of voters in November 1992 agreed, thus removing the biggest hurdle to Mississippi’s adoption of a lottery. The legislature could pass a bill authorizing a lottery at any time. But in the 23 years since a state lottery became constitutional, no such bill has survived.


There are several important reasons why political support has waned. Even though the constitutional amendment dispensed with the two-thirds supermajority requirement, any bill with a large impact on state finances, such as a lottery, needs a three-fifths vote in each house to pass. That is steep climb for any bill, but one that was made more difficult by several new headwinds that emerged after the 1992 referendum.

The first bill to legalize dockside casino gambling passed in 1990, thanks in part to Mabus’s lottery fight eating up most of the attention and vitriol. It started as a quiet effort by legislators from the Coast to rejuvenate the flagging tourist trade by building upon the popularity of gambling cruises. Some deft political maneuvering also opened up gambling on the Mississippi River, and a coalition of Coast and Delta legislators garnered slim majorities in the House and Senate. Since it required just a regular bill, not a constitutional amendment, casinos passed while the lottery — which received 17 more votes in the House and four more in the Senate — died.

Casinos did not matriculate immediately, but by 1993, they had become Mississippi’s fastest-growing industry. Bolstered by a growing national economy and hundreds of millions in new gaming revenue, Mississippi’s coffers were overrunning for the first time in memory. The fiscal impetus to pass a lottery had diminished, while the casino lobby, fearful of the competition, emerged as a powerful new foe. The new governor also opposed it. Fordice had agreed to put the constitutional referendum to the voters, but he held veto power over any lottery bill. The threshold in each house was again raised to the exacting two-thirds supermajority needed to override.

Meanwhile, some of the lottery’s legislative supporters began to get cold feet. Opinion polls had pegged approval in the 60 to 70 percent range, but the referendum passed by just a six-point margin. “Yes” votes were concentrated in specific areas, while “No” votes were distributed widely. As a result, the districts of many legislators contained more opponents than supporters. The opposition was certainly more vehement. As James Carville is said to have warned Georgia Governor Zell Miller before his own lottery push, “The lottery will poll at 67-33 percent, but that 33 percent will beat you to death.” Consequently, the lottery bill came up short in the 1993 legislative session, and it has been dead on arrival in every session since.

Politically, it’s hard to imagine that this year will be any different. While not necessarily a partisan issue, none of the Southern state lotteries have been passed under Republicans, who now control nearly every lever of power in Mississippi. Rather, lotteries arose as a staple of the mostly-extinct “New South” Democratic governors, like Mabus, who sought to generate new revenue for education while appropriating the read-my-lips fiscal conservatism of their GOP opponents. Between 1988 and 2008, every Southern state had a moderate Democratic governor who proposed a lottery to fund scholarships or schools. Each faced some form of the procedural hurdles and entrenched opposition that killed Mississippi’s effort, but in most other cases, they did not prove fatal. In 1990, the Florida panhandle was the closest place for a Mississippian to buy a lotto ticket. Today you can take any highway west or north and find a lottery at the border. Of our Southeastern neighbors, only Alabama, which narrowly defeated a referendum in 1999, has not joined the game. 

Given the partisan undertones, it’s unlikely that a lottery will pick up political momentum in Mississippi anytime soon. Nevertheless, some predict that the outflow of money will steadily ratchet up pressure until the opportunity cost is too great for GOP leaders to bear. The rapid expansion of lotteries in nearby states has created incentives that did not exist when Mabus first raised the idea. And the combination of Powerball headlines and anemic revenue projections should keep it alive as a topic of conversation, if nothing else.


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Featured photo by Mark Ou / CC BY

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