Federal elections in America have long been horse races without legal bookies. Some states outright outlaw putting money on political contests, while others simply omit such gambling from lists of permitted practices. But this week, a Nevada lawmaker proposed a bill that could give citizens the opportunity to gamble on their favorite candidates. “I don’t see why there should be some prohibition, or some moral qualms,” says State Sen. Tick Segerblom, the lawmaker behind SB 418. If passed, the bill would allow wagering on presidential elections and primaries in Nevada, as well as those for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Before there was Gallup or Real Clear Politics, newspapers covered races in part by reporting the odds that betting firms put on candidates like Woodrow Wilson, whom bookmakers correctly pegged as the likely winner in 1916. Some states started banning the practice because it was viewed as “unseemly” says David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “It was seen as people making money off of democracy.” And, he says, it was easy for an opponent to make the argument that inside information would be a great risk.
Segerblom says “the time has come” for a reversal because gambling is becoming more “socially acceptable,” particularly through efforts to legalize online gaming and expand practices like sports betting. He also sees it as leveling a playing field: during previous elections, people outside the U.S. have placed millions on American presidential contests through outfits such as Ireland-based Intrade, a firm which recently shuttered after an audit discovered financial irregularities. “If they can bet on our election in England,” Segerblom says, “then there’s no reason why we couldn’t bet on our election in the United States.”
Segerblom, a Democrat and chair of the state Judiciary Committee, makes a financial argument, too. “Any time people make a bet, Nevada makes money,” he says. However, as Schwartz points out, the additional revenue for this type of betting would likely be the equivalent of adding some new slot machines at Treasure Island. Nevada’s wins from sports betting is about 1% of the total in a given year–$170 million of $10.9 billion in 2012—and Schwartz predicts betting on elections would be a “tiny” subset of that 1%. “We’re not talking about anything approaching even an average NFL Sunday,” he says. Segerblom admits that political bets wouldn’t exactly “fund the state budget.”
The more central upside for Nevada may actually be the novelty factor, the fact that passing this bill would expand this list of things people are only allowed to do in Las Vegas. “It adds a little cache to Nevada because of all the gambling opportunities that are out there now.” Segerblom says. “It never hurts to remind people that we’re the capital of gaming.” He dismisses concerns that politicians could throw elections, saying that bettors watch such markets too closely for shenanigans to get by everyone.
The bill must first pass a committee vote, before being assessed by the legislature’s two chambers and the Governor. Segerblom says the most important approval will come from the industry itself: phone calls from the bigwigs at Caesar’s Palace and the MGM Grand, who have not yet weighed in on the wisdom of his proposal.
Left unstated is the potential psychological impact for voters that would come from making money from democratic participation. “It speaks to the development of politics as a spectator sport. It’s almost the way people would follow their favorite teams,” says Schwartz. “They seem to be picking sides … as opposed to soberly evaluating candidates and their platforms.”