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Computerized lottery drawings not problem-free

Aug 10, 2009, 9:22 am

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Arkansas Lottery

MUSL director Strutt says "Small group of players don't like them"

Passailaigue says players superstitious, "spooked" by changes in draw format

Arkansas lottery officials say their decision to use a computer to generate winning numbers when lottery games start this fall makes economic sense, but the use of computerized drawings by lotteries in other states has not been free of problems.

In July 2007, the Tennessee Education Lottery moved to save costs by doing away with its televised drawings of numbered pingpong balls and using a computer to generate random numbers. For the next three weeks, each winning number contained no two digits alike, which appeared to defy probability.

Lottery officials said a vendor had inadvertently programmed the computer not to duplicate any numbers. They offered a double refund to all players who picked numbers that couldn't win, provided they saved their losing tickets.

The Kansas Lottery encountered a problem in December 2005, when the winning numbers announced for the Pick 3 game were identical three nights in row. By the third night, so many people picked the apparently lucky number that the lottery had to pay out nearly twice what it made in ticket sales.

Officials determined that a computer problem caused the repetition. They offered coupons for free tickets to players who bought losing tickets for the three games.

In July of last year, Kansas lottery officials said another glitch had occurred, resulting in three winning numbers in the Pick 3 game being incorrectly reported. Players were allowed to collect prizes for both the correct numbers and the numbers reported in error.

Some say the savings from computerized drawings are outweighed by a loss in public confidence in the drawings.

With computerized drawings, "the public loses the ability to see the actual drawing on live broadcast television," an editorial on the Web site Lottery Post states. "While the state lotteries may see a live broadcast of a drawing as unnecessary overhead, many people view it as an essential way to maintain their confidence in fair drawings."

Lottery Post has launched a national petition drive to ask Congress to ban computerized lottery drawings. By late Friday afternoon, 5,410 people had signed the petition online, including a handful of Arkansans.

The problems the Kansas Lottery experienced did not cause players to lose confidence in the games, according to spokeswoman Sally Lunsford.

"We were very forthcoming about what happened and we did our best to rectify the situation," she said. "Obviously we felt badly about it, but I think we have a long history of integrity, and I don't think it greatly affected that."

The Kansas Lottery generated $230 million in gross ticket sales in fiscal 2009, a 2.6 percent drop from the previous year. Lunsford said she did not believe the sales figures signaled a decline in public confidence.

"Considering the economic year we've had, I don't think we're too distressed about them," she said.

The multi-state game Powerball, which the Arkansas Lottery Commission has chosen to join, uses a combination of a random number generator and live drawings. It has never gone completely to computerized drawings because of "a small group of players who don't like them," said Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association.

"Some members of the public feel they're not as random ... which I find kind of odd, because everybody can sit down and figure out how they're going to cheat a physical drawing," he said.

Strutt noted that plotters rigged a live drawing in Pennsylvania in 1980 by weighting every ball except 4 and 6, virtually guaranteeing that the winning number would be a combination of 4s and 6s. After the plot was exposed, the chief conspirators went to prison and the Pennsylvania Lottery heightened its security measures.

No known cases of cheating have occurred with computerized drawings, Strutt said.

Arkansas Lottery Director Ernie Passailaigue has said building a studio and purchasing equipment for live drawings would cost $1.7 million, and holding the drawings would cost $800,000 or more a year.

A random number generator, on the other hand, would cost about $100,000 to purchase, program and test, and would cost nothing to operate, allowing more lottery proceeds to go to college scholarships, according to Passailaigue.

In an interview Friday, Passailaigue said Arkansas' lottery will have tight security.

"You have to ensure that the players understand the degree of security over the numbers being generated by a computer as opposed to a ball set," he said. "That format has an equal degree of integrity. Once the players understand that, there's going to be no issue about it."

The South Carolina Education Lottery, which Passailaigue ran before taking over as Arkansas' lottery director July 1, has held live drawings since the games started in 2002. Switching from one method to another is difficult, Passailaigue said.

"What happens in lottery states, when you start off with a traditional live drawing with the ball sets, people get used to that. ... A lot of lottery players are superstitious. Any change in that format tends to spook them," he said.

Passailaigue said the Texas Lottery's drawings in its television studio have turned into "a non-event and a waste of money" because players have lost interest in watching them, but the lottery hasn't changed its method because "the player base is used to that format."

Texas Lottery spokesman Bobby Heith did not immediately return a phone message Friday, but he recently told the Dallas Morning News the lottery's drawings are open to the public — though local television stations have stopped broadcasting them live — because "people like to see those balls drop. ... It lends to the security and confidence in the games."

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