Guest Editorial: State-run lotteries must name winners to keep confidence

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If the Powerball lottery announced that its $560 million jackpot was being awarded to a woman in another state whose identity was withheld, would you believe that was on the up-and-up?

In this age of conspiracy theories, many people wouldn’t.

Who could blame them? A person would not have to be an extreme skeptic to wonder:

• Was there really a $560 million payout? Or did the states that participate in Powerball simply split up the ticket money, giving away none of it?

• Was the game rigged, with the money going to a powerful politician, or a relative of a lottery official, or someone else with important connections?

There is a New Hampshire woman who holds the winning ticket in the recent Powerball $560 million drawing. She wants to remain anonymous and has gone to court seeking to keep her identity hidden from the public.

“She is a longtime resident of New Hampshire and is an engaged community member,” her attorney wrote in a petition. “She wishes to continue this work and the freedom to walk into a grocery store or attend public events without being known or targeted as the winner of a half-billion dollars.”

And this: “She intends to contribute a portion of her winnings to a charitable foundation so that they may do good in the world. She wishes to be a silent witness to these good works, far from the glare and misfortune that has often fallen upon other lottery winners.”

This would-be silent witness is on a collision course with New Hampshire law that requires public disclosure of lottery winners.

North Carolina law does the same. The N.C. Education Lottery publicizes big winners. Showing off winners is the best form of advertising. It says, “If she won, so can you ... if you play!”

But that’s not the only reason. The lottery is a government operation. It is accountable to the people and is required to disclose the amount of money it takes in, how much it spends on operations, how much it pays in prizes and where it distributes its earnings.

The law requires transparency because lotteries depend on the public’s trust. People must be sure that the lottery is run honestly, fairly and for the benefit of the state. When it awards prizes, especially big prizes, the public must be confident that the winners are ordinary people who bought tickets just like everyone else and had the same chance of winning as all those players who did not win.

People who gamble in private casinos are entitled to win anonymously, sharing their good fortune with the tax collectors and no one else. People who choose to play state lotteries give up the right of privacy if they win.

North Carolina is lenient enough to offer exceptions for victims of domestic violence or other crimes, and these exceptions are troubling. They could be exploited. It’s better for vulnerable people to avoid activities that could draw attention to themselves — like winning a lottery jackpot. Word gets around even without news coverage.

In New Hampshire, the anonymous woman could have formed a trust to receive the money on her behalf, letting her remain a “silent witness.” But she gave up her chance by signing her winning ticket, lottery officials say. Now, barring a court ruling in her favor, her choices are to accept the winnings and the publicity, or turn down the prize and continue her quiet life.

There is no doubt about the troubles many big winners encounter. Some are mercilessly hounded by well-wishers and swindlers. Some are targets for dangerous criminals. But riches can buy privacy and security. Wealthy people all over the world manage to live happily, and safely, with their millions and billions. The Powerball winner in New Hampshire, if she wants her money, will have to figure it out.

That’s the price of public confidence in the multibillion-dollar state lottery industry. The public has a right to know who wins.