The following conference paper by Dr. Denise von Herrmann, The University of Southern Mississippi, was first presented at the 2000 Annual meeting of the Mississippi Political Science Association in Mobile, Alabama. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or cite with permission of the author.
The headlines heralded the victory: “Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman rode his proposal for a state lottery to victory over Republican Gov. Fob James. One of the few Democrats to oust an incumbent Republican governor this year, Siegelman won 58 percent to James's 42 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting,” was the way the Associated Press reported it (AP News Online, 1998). This story, and most others like it, went on to explain how polls clearly showed that support of the Alabama Lottery for Education proposal was a primary factor in voters’ decisions to send Siegelman to the Montgomery Governor’s mansion.
The punchline to the story probably surprised no one more than it did Siegelman—in the required statewide ballot on the issue, voters subsequently rejected the lottery for education. Why? The answers that have been given in the major news media have tended to focus on two specific issues: first, the strong anti-lottery push financed by a number of pro-family and conservative Christian groups, and second, questions raised by those groups and other political opponents of the lottery about the ethics of the proposed plan.
In order to examine these and other potential explanations of the lottery’s failure, given the apparent support for the lottery expressed in the gubernatorial election; we will first explore the history and political background of the state in which all of this occurred. Next, we’ll look at the proposal itself, and some of the reaction of opponents. Finally, we will analyze the public opinion polls for evidence that the lottery may have suffered most from a form of political fatigue combined with excess information and possibly misinformation.
History of gambling policy in Alabama
Prior to 1999, Alabama has had only limited public discussion of gambling policy. Currently the state allows the operation of bingo, heavily regulated and allowable in most counties only when operated for charities, (Yardley, May 4, 1993) as well as pari-mutuels in the form of three greyhound racetracks and one combined horse and dog track (Christiansen, 1991, p. 4).
When the Mobile Greyhound Park opened in 1973, it was the only legal pari-mutuel gambling facility in the state (Bolton, October 12, 1993). As of 1993, the state has three additional dog racing facilities in Greene, Macon, and Jefferson counties. Victoryland, opened in 1984 in Macon county, was the nation's most successful dog track in 1987, but has since been hurt by the addition of dog racing at the existing horsetrack in Birmingham, the opening of casino gambling in Biloxi, Mississippi in late 1992 (Bolton, 1993, p. 10), and the start of nearby Georgia's state lottery in July of 1993.
The Birmingham RaceTrack, approved in 1984, was the second horseracing facility in the Deep South, following Louisiana. Although faced with some resistance when first proposed, the track drew enough public support to win both a statewide constitutional amendment vote in November 1984 (Grimm, 1984), and a Birmingham city referendum in June of the same year (Schmidt, 1984).
Several times in the early 1990s, members of the Alabama legislature have proposed expanding the allowable forms of gambling to include such things as a state lottery, casino-style dockside gaming, and casino or lottery-style video terminals to be placed at existing pari-mutuel facilities, a move meant to bolster state revenues and track attendance (Bolton, 1993, p. 10). None of these efforts has been successful, due at least in part to a legislature that has been distracted by the removal of a governor under ethics violations and the settlement of an education reform lawsuit (Bolton, 1993, p.10). Through the 1990s, it appeared that the reasons for Alabama's failure to catch onto the rapid "third wave" (Rose, 1991) of gambling lay not so much with voters as with legislators, who in their brief annual sessions have in the past decade faced far more pressing decisions. The lottery idea also did not have the backing, during the early part of the decade, of major legislative leaders such as House speaker Jim Clark.
Owners of the pari-mutuel facilities, as well as the county and city executives who depend upon them for tax revenues, have not and are not likely to stand in the way of any proposal that would incorporate the existing tracks. The politically powerful owner of two of the state's racetracks, Milton McGregor, put it this way:
To protect the thousands of jobs in this industry in our state, we have to offer what our competition offers and the Mississippi casinos and the Indian reservations are our competition...When we have people from Georgia, who have been coming to VictoryLand since it opened, start bypassing us and driving another three hours to Mississippi and passing two dog tracks on the way, we have a problem.
(Bolton, 1993, p. 10)
A Political Understanding of Alabama Lottery Proposals
Through the early 1990's, lottery bills were introduced each year by a Montgomery County state legislator, Representative Alvin Holmes, yet they never came up for a vote. Why have voters in other states been able to get the legal gambling they wanted, often over the opposition of elected officials? One answer may lie in direct democracy processes such as initiative, referendum, and recall. None of these are available to Alabama voters, so while a majority of voters may have wanted a lottery or other forms of gambling, they lacked any straightforward mechanism by which to force the issue to a vote. Lobbying is the only real method of attempting to influence policy in Alabama. But additional forms of gambling in Alabama also have failed to attract support from any major interest groups.
Rather than offer their support, several important groups have in the past actively opposed lotteries. Bill Smith, President of the A+ organization, which has pushed for education reform in the state, opposed several lottery bills, as has the Alabama Education Association, the state's powerful education lobby. The AEA only joined the push for a lottery after Siegelman made it a cornerstone in his campaign to oust Governor Fob James. By contrast, education officials in Florida, Georgia, and Texas have all been behind their state's lottery movements early on (Gambling in the South, II, 1993, p. M1).
Milton McGregor's political organization, called JOBPAC, had been reported to be lobbying against a lottery because he feared it might further siphon away gambling dollars from his pari-mutuel tracks. (Patriquin, 1994, p. 1B).
Another key to the lack of work on legal gambling during this period may have been the lack of a strong gubernatorial push. As the examples in states such as Illinois and Louisiana clearly demonstrate, proposed gambling legalization often comes from governors (and gubernatorial candidates). Until 1999, no governor or strong gubernatorial candidate had every proposed a state lottery. Democratic Governor Jim Folsom came close when he declared in August of 1993 that he wanted the legislature to take up the issue of a state lottery in a special session which he called for August 23rd of that year. But the state legislators, already in special session to reform state ethics and campaign finance laws, encouraged him to reconsider, since they would not have had enough time to deal with all three issues (“Ala. legislator,” 1993, p. D-9). A similar measure failed to gain legislative approval in 1996 (“Gambling under attack, p. 783).
Again, the state’s powerful racetrack-owner, Milton McGregor also may have played a part. His contributions to various Alabama governors have raised eyebrows among some voters in the state, and they created concern for any attempt by the governor to promote the adoption of additional forms of gambling (Patriquin, 1994, p. 1A). His only major gambling competition in the state, Greenetrack in Eutaw, Alabama, had to close live racing operations in the late summer of 1996, due to poor attendance.
One state legislator tried a new approach on the state lottery that might have produced results, however. State Senator Gerald Dial, whose district borders on neighboring Georgia, announced a plan to create a college tuition scholarship program, which he called STARS. The plan, based on Georgia’s HOPE program, would create college scholarships for those who maintain a B average and pay for them with a state lottery (Boswell, 1996, p. 1). Dial’s plan was to first create a constituency for lottery revenues, and then to ask for constitutional authorization to create the lottery. Reminiscent of New Jersey’s battle over the casinos, and both Florida’s and Georgia’s state lottery adoptions, the Alabama program would create momentum by focusing on what a lottery could do, rather than on the lottery itself.
But the failure to move forward quickly with such a plan may have sown the seeds of undoing for Governor Siegelman’s plan two and a half years later. During the second half of the 1990s, a number of local newspaper articles, television news segments, and national media attention focused on the state lotteries, particularly those in places like Florida and Georgia. While some supporters thought that this attention might make it easier to pass legislation in states such as Alabama, the evidence supports the opposite conclusion as well. Several articles in state newspapers detailed how education funding in Florida had not grown since the lottery was begun, and others explained how some educators in Georgia are resentful of the state’s use of lottery funds only in college scholarships, pre-K programs, and technology upgrades.
These kinds of concerns provided specific fodder for anti-lottery forces, and many times opponents quoted directly from such stories. The release in 1999 of the National Gambling Impact Study Commission report, and the subsequent intense discussions of the social ills associated with gambling, (particularly among pro-family, conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and Alabama’s Moody Bible Network radio stations) provided more fuel for the anti-lottery fires.
When the time came for the new governor to actually propose a plan, anti-lottery forces were ready. They formed coalitions and began to devise a grass-roots strategy to defeat the lottery, although many acknowledge that they never dreamed they would be so successful. Citizens Against Legalized Lottery, one such group, reported that they and other opponents spent over $1 million on advertising, billboards, and flyers. But pro-lottery forces, backed by the state democratic party and educational associations, outspent CALL 3 to 1 (“Lottery vote shows…” October 14, 1999).
Siegelman’s plan for a state lottery
“In my inaugural address, I said that we would dare mighty things. I said that we would try new things and if they didn’t work we would try something else,” Siegelman said after the votes were counted. He said the results “only serve to motivate me and to energize me in our fight and our quest to change education in this state forever” (“Siegelman, aides…”, October 14, 1999). This was the gubernatorial response to a stunning defeat at the ballot box to a plan that he had made the centerpiece of his tenure in the governor’s mansion.
As governor, Siegelman had promised that the lottery would generate at least $150 million annually to fund college scholarships, a pre-kindergarten program and computer technology in schools. His plan was taken directly from the lottery plan of his neighbor to the east, Georgia. Georgia’s highly successful lottery generated over $300 million in its first year of operation, 1993 (Mason and Nelson, 1999). Furthermore, Siegelman had argued that substantial amounts of Alabama residents’ money are already flowing to lottery ticket purchases, in states such as Georgia, Florida, and even Louisiana. The Georgia lottery once estimated that non-residents of the state purchased 28% of all its tickets. (“Other States..” 1994). The figure reported for Florida is even higher.
On the surface, the Siegelman lottery plan was quite similar to Georgia’s. It provided that lottery proceeds be used only to pay for: 1) college scholarships for students with a grade point average of “B” or better, 2) funding a new public, pre-kindergarten program, and 3) improving technology in Alabama’s public schools. Like Georgia’s plan, the Alabama plan did not specifically describe which forms of lottery games (scratch-offs, instant draw keno games, lottos) would be allowed. Those decisions were left open for the new Alabama Education Lottery Corporation to determine. Unlike the Georgia law, the Alabama proposal would not have specified winning rates (in Georgia, half of all lottery proceeds must be returned as prizes). In the Alabama plan, only administrative expense levels were set (no higher than 20%, or 20 cents on the dollar).
Most troubling for many in the state, the Alabama lottery plan had what some viewed as a rather “lax” set of standards for contracting of lottery services—the most lucrative part of a statewide lottery, and the part most subject to ethical scrutiny. In a Mobile Register story following the ballot defeat of the proposal, political scientist Sam Fisher said that the lottery proposal tended to “…reinforce the image that this money is going to provide money to the old crew, the good old boys (“Could it…?” October 14, 1999). Opponents used this notion in their anti-lottery television advertising—suggesting that Governor Siegelman had purposely structured the bill in such a way as to help out some of his cronies. The same story also noted that “…opponents also claimed that a recent traffic ticket- fixing scandal showed that the Democratic governor’s administration could not be trusted to oversee gambling in the state” (October 14, 1999).
But was the Governor and his trustworthiness, or lack of it, the key issue? Most supporters and opponents have publicly acknowledged that the morality of state lotteries was the central issue dividing supporters and opponents. AEA executive chairman Ron Hubbard, in an interview following the lottery defeat, said that is was very hard to stand up against the churches and their leaders, and that it was they who put up the strongest fight. “It was a battle of morals," he said, and added “They got their people out to the polls,” (October 14, 1999).
The Apparent Erosion of Public Support for Lotteries in Alabama
Despite what some Alabama legislators may try to assert, the lack of success in attempts to expand gambling opportunities in Alabama cannot be blamed on a generalized lack of support from the state’s citizens. Several of the state’s polling operations have asked Alabamians’ opinions regarding various gambling proposals. When they have been asked, questions about proposed lotteries have almost always received the agreement or support of a majority of the respondents. Other proposed forms of gambling, such as riverboat casinos and video gambling, also have received substantial support from voters.
State polls in 1983, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1998 have asked various questions about legalized gambling. Of these, one of the most extensive is the 1993 poll by Southern Opinion Research. In order to ascertain respondents’ support for a number of hypothetical forms of gambling, the poll asks:
Several proposals have recently been made about establishing different types of legal gambling in Alabama. Do you approve or disapprove of the following types of legalized gambling being permitted in Alabama?
Then a list of seven possible forms of gambling is read, and the respondent answers with either “agree,” “disagree,” or “don’t know.” The results of these polls are summarized in Table 1. In the 1988 survey, 65.8 percent of Alabama residents say they favor a state lottery, and that figure increases to 74 percent when the question specifically mentions earmarking lottery monies for education in the 1989 survey. A majority, 51.9 percent, in the 1993 survey would favor riverboat casino gambling, but support falls to only 41.1 percent for “casino gambling,” which is a less-defined option.
Southern Opinion Research has specifically tracked support for a state lottery in Alabama between 1983 and 1998. In twelve separate polls, the Tuscaloosa polling group asked, “In order to raise more money, should the state government in Alabama have a lottery?” or some very similarly-worded variant of that question.  The total percent of persons in Alabama expressing support for the state lottery grew steadily between 1983 and 1992, and then declined steadily but less sharply, until 1998. Table 2 shows the percent of persons supporting a statewide lottery in SOR polls during the period. From nothing more than a simple examination of these data, it would appear that lottery supporters missed their opportunity to bring the statewide game to Alabama when they failed to act in the early 1990s.
These polls, unfortunately, did not typically include questions about whether respondents were of the Christian faith, nor did they ask about church attendance. But demographic data from these polls suggests that support from the lottery came from all sectors. One Protestant pastor from Bay Minette was quoted in the Mobile papers as saying he believed his congregation would have easily supported the lottery if it had been targeted toward K-12 education, rather than college scholarships (Mobile Register, October 14, 1999).
Of particular interest is a poll conducted in June of 1992. Along with the question about support for a state lottery, this poll described various ideas associated with legal gambling and asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with them. The results, in Table 3, suggest that moral issues had been of particular concern to Alabama residents well before the churches began actively opposing Siegelman’s plan.
For example, while 60% of poll respondents agreed that gambling is one way to provide needed funds for education, 58% thought state action legalizing gambling would encourage persons to gamble who might not otherwise do so. While the question about the morality of gambling was essentially a statistical tie, (42% said yes, 49% said no, and 9% weren’t sure) 52% thought it makes compulsive gamblers out of some people who wouldn’t otherwise become so. And that same poll in 1992 found that only 32% of Alabama residents had purchased, within the past year, a lottery ticket in another state.
The most relevant of the SOR polls for our purposes were conducted in September and October of 1998. A question about the establishment of a state lottery for Alabama received about 55% on each of these polls. But when the question specifically about a lottery to provide college scholarships was asked, support rose to about 65%. These questions were asked just prior to the gubernatorial election, and while many interpreted such results at the time as suggesting that the lottery issue provided voters for Siegelman, it now seems relevant to ask the question as to whether support for Siegelman (and/or opposition to Fob James) may have provided support for the lottery for education idea.
In other words, Alabama voters probably wanted, in October of 1998, someone new to come in and make some changes, particularly in the area of education. After nearly four years of Governor James, years during which many educators felt their concerns had been ignored; Siegelman was now on the scene offering concrete suggestions. For those voters (and we could assume for the sake of argument that there were many) who had not personally studied state lotteries and who knew relatively little about them other than the anecdotal stories from nearby Georgia and Florida, a state lottery for education probably sounded like an appealing idea.
But in the year that followed, much more evidence and detail were provided to Alabama residents about state lotteries in general, and about the model of Georgia’s lottery in particular. Continuing to assume, let us say that now, with the newly-acquired information in hand, a small but significant portion of Alabama voters now had changed their minds about the lottery as an answer to the state’s educational problems. That shift of five, or maybe ten percent of voters could easily translate into a much larger shift at the polls if turnout was high among (motivated) opponents, and low among supporters.
Conclusions about the lottery’s defeat
Indeed, the evidence seems to provide support for just such a scenario. While there is certainly truth in the charge that fundamentalist and evangelical protestant churches lobbied vigorously—with ministers providing direction from the pulpit for their congregants to vote against the lottery—there is also sufficient evidence that such persons were never strongly in favor of the lottery in significant numbers to begin with. While ethical concerns might have chipped away at the governor’s own base, again, they probably were not needed to convince the fundamentalists. Thus it is unlikely that many strong evangelicals and fundamentalists would have voted for the lottery anyway.
What shifted, as is so often the case with ballot measures, were the “moderates” on the issue. Ethical considerations about who plays the lottery, how much lottery funds would help improve education in the state, whether the proposal itself was a solid and well-written piece of legislation, all were of concern to moderates who were among those who generally do not feel lotteries are immoral. Thus “morals,” as typically defined, probably did not hold sway so much as did relevant policy concerns.
Newspaper headlines blared on October 14th that the “Lottery votes shows power of church,” (Birmingham News) but the evidence suggests that the church won not so much by arguing that the lottery was immoral as by arguing that it was bad policy. Of course, additional exit polling data regarding the specific issues voters considered when casting ballots for or against the lottery would be helpful as evidence of this. But the anecdotal evidence provides a solid base of support for such an idea.
Will the Alabama experience impact the gambling policy debates in future situations? The likely answer is a resounding yes. For pro-gambling forces to hold sway, they must not only gain support of their own political base, (those who stand most to benefit either politically or economically from the proposed gambling form as well as those who personally want the opportunity to gamble legally) but they must also convince those persons who tend to “sit on the fence” on the gambling issue. If pro-gambling forces cannot come up with compelling arguments against the positions taken by CALL and similar groups in Alabama, we may begin to see a series of setbacks in the expansion of legal gambling that has, until now, gone on pretty-much unimpeded.
Table One: Alabamians’ Support for a State Lottery & Other Gambling
A lottery for Alabama, would you support or oppose?
Poll & Date Support Oppose DK
SOR 1988 65.8% 27.2% 7.0%
CAP 1989 66.0% 26.0% 8.0%
If a lottery were earmarked for education in Alabama, would you be for or against it?
CAP 1989 74.0% 21.0% 5.0%
In order to raise more money, should the State Government
in Alabama have a lottery? (Yes) (No) (DK)
SOR 1993 67% 26% 7%
SOR 1994 62% 32% 6%
SOR 1999 52% 41% 9%
SOR 1993 Approve Disapp DK
Bingo for cash prizes 66.8% 28.7% 4.5%
Casino gambling 41.1% 55.6% 3.7%
Video gambling machines 46.6% 47.6% 5.7%
at dog/horse tracks
OTB on horse/dog races 39.2% 56.4% 4.5%
Betting on sports… 41.9% 54.6% 3.5%
Casino gambling on 51.9% 43.4% 4.7%
so-called “river boats”
Sources: Ominibus Survey, The Capstone Poll, The University of Alabama, 1989. Southern Opinion Research poll #34, 1988, #109, 1993, #145, 1994, #232, 1998, and
Table Two: Growth and Decline of Support for a State Lottery
Percent favoring a lottery in Alabama in polls by Southern Opinion Research (question wording varies slightly)
Date of Poll Percent answering “agree” and/or “strongly agree”
Source: Southern Opinion Research Polls.
Table Three: Ideas About Gambling in Alabama
“Do you agree or disagree with the following statements about legalized gambling:
Agree Disagree DK/NA
It provides needed money for worthwhile programs
such as education and senior citizens 60% 33% 7%
It makes compulsive gamblers out of persons who
would not otherwise be 52 43 5
It creates jobs and stimulates the economy 68 27 5
People are going to gamble anyway, so the state
might as well earn revenue from it 64 33 3
It encourages some people to gamble who
wouldn’t otherwise do so 58 38 4
It is immoral 42 49 9
Source: Southern Opinion Research poll #109.
Bolton. “Alabama gamblers come to state for lottery tickets.” Atlanta-Journal & Constitution. October 12, 1993.
Boswell. “Gambling issues surface again.” Birmingham News, Dec. 3, 1996.
Christiansen. Gambling And Gaming In the United States-1990. Eugene M. Christiansen and Associates, reprint, 1991.
“Gambling In the South, II” Atlanta-Journal & Constitutuion. October 5, 1993.
Grimm. “Voters approve race tracks.” Birmingham News. November 5, 1984.
“Lottery vote shows power of church” Birmingham News. October 14, 1999
Patriquin. “Track owner plans gambling expansion” Mobile Register. February 13, 1994.
Rose. The Rise and Fall of Legal Gambling. University of Nevada Press. 1991.
Schmidt. “B’ham voters approve track referendum.” (“Lottery vote shows…” October 14, 1999, June 6, 1984.
“Siegelman & Lottery Win Big.” AP News Online. Accessed November 10, 1998.
“Siegelman, aides, ponder loss.” Birmingham News. October 14, 1999.
Yardley. “Alabamians gamble in, out of state.” Birmingham News, May 4, 1993.
 For example, in 1983 and 1985, the question was, “In order to raise more money, the state government in Alabama should have a lottery. Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree?”