An official lottery is a competition in which numbered tickets are sold for a prize. The prize may be a fixed amount of cash or goods, or it may be a share of total receipts. The earliest recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, where they were used to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor.

In the nineteenth century, as America grew wealthier, state governments began to run lotteries again, largely because they could not balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—two options that were unpopular with voters. Lottery advocates dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling, arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well reap some of the profits.

However, the proliferation of gambling games also made it harder for critics to argue that state-sponsored lotteries were morally acceptable. They hailed from across the political spectrum and from all walks of life, Cohen writes, with the most vociferous opponents being devout Protestants who viewed state-sponsored gambling as morally unconscionable.

In the modern era, state lotteries are usually regulated by law and operated independently from one another. They offer a range of different games, from traditional numbers to instant tickets and video lottery terminals. Several states have joined together to organize consortiums that hold national-level games with large jackpot prizes. These groups are often called Mega Millions or Powerball. The games are generally computerized, but critics question the fairness of their drawing methods and the reliability of the winning numbers.