Bet on Red! Nevada May Legalize Gambling on Federal Elections

Putting money on elections used to be a popular pastime in America. One Silver State lawmaker says it’s time for history to repeat itself.

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JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates his reelection in Chicago on Nov. 7, 2012.

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.”

26 comments
deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Great post by Katy, topic derseves further study, but memo to whoever runs blog system stuff here (IT staff, High Sheriffs, SkyNet) - tweets are NOT blog posts. Please don't clutter comment threads with them. THANK YOU!

AZWarrior
AZWarrior

OK, does that mean that the Gaming Commision will ensure the elections aren't rigged? 

hansgruberhitit
hansgruberhitit

%s %s for only one year until %s stops running his blog and takes Vegas for all the money %s

Thingumbobesq
Thingumbobesq

In this case "somebody bet on the nag"... big time.

Ajsoti
Ajsoti

@PoliticalLogic Hillary is at 8to1, Rand is at about 20to1. Two carefully placed bets & Im happy in 2016 regardless of the outcome. Lol

j2lovesfriday
j2lovesfriday

@michaelscherer Give Katy our reader kudos for her post. Also, let Alex Rogers know there's error in MMR's (miswrote African-American).

outsider
outsider

Thanks for this Katy - i too hope you chime in; we appreciate the participation from the posters. 

notsacredh
notsacredh

"Left unstated is the potential psychological impact for voters that would come from making money from democratic participation."

The baggers would be so sure that their candidates would win that they'd bet the farm. Look at Mitt. They couldn't believe that the Muslim would beat a God-fearing vulture capitalist.   

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

I wonder how much poor Katy had to dig through the Nevada Gaming Control Board regulations as part of her research ...or did she do the smart thing and force an intern to do that? Here's the current section on sports books ...and elections...

http://gaming.nv.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=2900

See 22.120 - Prohibited wagers; exception for an event other than a horse race, greyhound race, or an athletic sports event. 

1. No wagers may be accepted or paid by any book on:

...(c) The outcome of any election for any public office both within and without the State of Nevada;

(d) Any event, regardless of where it is held, involving a professional team whose home field, a court, or base is in Nevada, or any event played in Nevada involving a professional team, if, not later than 30 days before an event or the beginning of a series of events, the team’s governing body files with the commission a written request that wagers on the event or series of events be prohibited, and the commission approves the request....

(yep, Katy should propose exploring this in a cover story - in-state action, can Adelson bet personally, etc.)


deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Katy! I hope YOU chime in with more thoughts or follow-up articles (even better, a cover story - this would sell magazines). If this had been allowed last year, I'd "bet" Sheldon Adelson would've bet HUGE on Romney (or Gingrich in primaries) ...if allowed to. How would casino owners be allowed / not to participate personally?

bobell
bobell

Hey, sacredh -- Here's the perfect retirement job for you: consultant to people gambling on elections. Although I do have to wonder what you can do beyond recommending they read Nate Silver.

michi83
michi83

%s I saw that last night!! %s

notsacredh
notsacredh

Nate who? Never heard of the guy. Sounds gay.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

@bobell ...I'd be happy to have Sacredh run a lottery or scratch-off pool for all of us (and of course give him a generous cut) since he has the magic touch for picking winners. That dude in NJ who won the Powerball certainly had the right touch this once.