Sweepstakes banned…again

By Corey Friedman

Sweepstakes centers across North Carolina could be shuttered next year when authorities begin enforcing a law banning video sweepstakes games.

Judges had blocked police and sheriff’s deputies from charging sweepstakes operators while a legal battle worked its way through the appellate system. The N.C. Supreme Court had the final word last week, ruling that the sweepstakes ban doesn’t violate operators’ First Amendment right to free speech.

Now that the high court has closed the loophole under which sweepstakes centers are operating, businesses will seek creative ways to keep the doors open and the cash pouring in.

Fish the Net Sweepstakes in Wilson posted a letter from a Raleigh law office on its door stating that the gaming software its sweepstakes terminals use operates differently from the kind banned by state law, and thus, its machines are legal.

Since the General Assembly first took aim at video poker in 2006, regulating electronic gambling has proven a complicated and fruitless exercise. When lawmakers decide to ban certain kinds of games, operators rely on technology to skirt the law.

They always seem to be a step ahead of the legislature, replacing games and game software with new variations as soon as new laws are passed.

Moral resistance to gambling runs deep. Opponents of sweepstakes games argue that they’re a sucker bet, attracting low-income players with the lure of big payouts that rarely materialize. The games are a financial drain on the poor, opponents say, and the lucrative cash-only businesses are an easy target for robberies and thefts.

While gambling can be addictive and has a disobliging tendency to attract the players who can least afford to lose, we don’t see why state lawmakers should prevent residents from trying their hand at games of chance. The choice of whether to gamble is a personal decision best left to the individual.

When it comes to gambling, North Carolina wants to have it both ways. Lawmakers approved the N.C. Education Lottery in 2005, justifying the move as an opportunity to boost school funding without raising taxes or siphoning cash from other programs. The lottery says it’s raised more than $2.58 billion for North Carolina schools.

If gambling is OK when it’s state-run, private businesses shouldn’t be shut out of the action. To say otherwise sets an illogical double standard and undercuts moral objections to gambling while giving government a monopoly.

Granted, not all sweepstakes machine opponents are inconsistent. State Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said he wants the games to remain illegal. He said he probably would have voted against the lottery had he been in office when it was approved.

“Gambling has been outlawed in our state basically since the creation of our state as a colony,” Newton said. “I think that most folks in North Carolina still think that organized gambling is not a healthy thing for our society.”

While many share that view, we think it’s paternalistic for government to swoop in and stop people from spending their own money in ways they see fit.  It’s not worth dismantling individual liberty to protect taxpaying adults from themselves.

Gambling may be a poor investment, but it’s one that free people ought to be free to make.

[Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]

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