App could shake up Alabama’s lottery debate in a big way

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ARDMORE, Ala. (WHNT) - Alabamians have been arguing over a lottery for decades now.

Opponents call it a tax on the poor; they say it's morally wrong. Others think the state is missing out on major money that could help our budget crisis.

A new app could disrupt that old gambling debate in a big way by offering Alabamians digital access to lottery games.

Like a lot of people, Connie Bailey and her mom Laverne Free, occasionally cross the Alabama-Tennessee state to play the lotto. The two ladies are rarely alone. On the day WHNT News 19 showed up at The Ardmore Exchange, there was a steady stream of customers.

Crystal Green, a manager running the register, said it's "crazy" some days, with people driving from miles away, sometimes more than two hours, even from Birmingham, just to get there. If the big name games like Powerball or MegaMillions are at record levels, the line of cars can back up to Interstate 65.

Bailey and Free enjoy those big games. Mostly though, they like the scratch off tickets. The two will come together every couple of weeks, and sit together chatting, enjoying the moments and scratching away until their set pool of money is "played out."

When asked about a new app called Jackpocket, which lets users purchase lottery tickets digitally, Bailey was curious. "I'd probably try it," she mused, after some thought.

Jackpocket can currently only be played in New York but its creators tell WHNT News 19 they want to expand to all states; maybe one day even globally. Whether residents of non-lotto states like Alabama could use the app however, is kind of a legal "gray zone."

The app works using a courier system. So, when you place an order through your mobile device, someone still goes to a physical location to buy your ticket. That keeps lottery ticket sellers happy. The app's geo-fencing feature also allows participating state lotteries to keep their appropriate share of revenues.

But the courier concept isn't really that different from you sending a buddy across state lines to buy a ticket, or pooling resources at the office to pick up multiple tickets. Those things are done all the time, despite individual state laws. A recent U.S. Department of Justice opinion also held that states were not held to the 1961 Wire Act, which prohibited gambling across state lines.

As Jackpocket's CEO Peter Sullivan points out, if his app's courier model is illegal for non-lotto state residents, so are a lot of other things.

"Facebook Messenger now allows you to transfer money in between, "Sullivan explained, "So you could actually go and say, "Hey, go and purchase this lottery ticket for me over in New York!"

The issue of "digital gambling" and Jackpocket in particular, has already caught the attention of Alabama lawmakers.

State Rep. Mac McCutcheon, a Republican from Madison County, said it came up in recent special session budget talks.

"One of the legislators even spoke up in the discussion," Rep. McCutcheon explained, "[They] said, 'Well.. you know they've got an app now?'"

In a time when Alabama is struggling to balance its budget without drastic cuts, Jackpocket could bring revenue gains without the overhead of establishing a traditional lottery's bureaucracy.

"We'd love to be able to come in and give [Alabama lawmakers] full advantage of the most leading edge technology at really no cost," Sullivan said.

McCutcheon though said it's still way too early to talk specifics. He thinks it's likely we'll see a clean vote on establishing the lottery in the next legislative session. What that lotto looks like though, will be a separate debate and not everyone will want a new player like Jackpocket in the mix.

"You have some [older gambling] entities in Alabama that are still here. They want to have a monopoly," Rep. McCutcheon said.

Connie Bailey thinks having a lottery in her home state would be a huge win and much more convenient. Digital access to the games, would be even more so.

But she's quick to point out that an app could never replace the in-person ritual between mom and daughter.

The one that brings them together for a few hours every so often, to bond over a pile of tickets.

To learn more about the Jackpocket app, you can check it out in the Apple app store for iOS. Google Play doesn't currently allow apps that facilitate lottery tickets but a native Android app can be downloaded from the Jackpocket website.

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