Sweepstakes ‘whack-a-mole’

Jan. 02, 2014 @ 06:25 PM

Let’s establish this right off the bat:

The “Internet cafes” and “sweepstakes parlors” that have proliferated around Durham and the rest of the state in recent years are not our idea of reputable businesses.  The video games that people go there to play, lured by the possibility of an occasional and generally meager cash payout, are high-tech slot machines – without cachet, as it were.

They are, it’s fair to say, just another way to separate the gullible from money they can little afford to lose.

You can say that about the North Carolina Education Lottery, too, we might add.

One is not just sanctioned, but also operated, promoted and boasted about by the state.

The other is harassed, outlawed, raided and closed down by the state.

That in itself is an irony. But the state’s pursuit of the sweepstakes cafes also shows signs of expensive futility.  Legal challenges to bans on the businesses abound, and lower courts are reaching contradictory conclusions that ultimately will need to be decided – once again -- by higher courts.

That already has happened with challenges to earlier versions of bans on the businesses.  As an Associated Press story in The Herald-Sun Thursday pointed out, makers of sweepstakes software went to court to overturn legislation passed in 2008 and 2010. That legislation – passed after the electronic gaming industry sidestepped 2006 legislation by adapting the games – violated Constitutional rights to free speech, the industry contended.

In late 2012, the Supreme Court ended a two-year legal tussle by upholding the ban.

And the cycle resumed, with the gamers tweaking their model once again to purportedly comply with the new laws. Whether that’s true or not is being decided court by court.

Some cities and counties  aggressively pursue the parlors. Others are waiting to see the ultimate outcome of the court battles. Durham seems somewhere in the middle, with a tilt toward moving to close down parlors. Many are dark and empty.

Attorney General Roy Cooper – a likely gubernatorial candidate – says the sweepstakes outfits are clearly illegal and has been helping local law enforcement agencies to close them.  He thinks persistence will eventually pay off, and that “it’s just going to take a period of time before it’s eradicated.”

But he acknowledges the goal’s elusive nature.

“You still may have them popping up like we did with the payday lending industry,” he told the AP’s Michael Weiss. “It’s sort of like whack-a-mole. They come up with a different kind of nuance.”

Perhaps the lesson is that an outright ban is difficult to achieve.  The parlors are popular with many people. The majority of folks seem indifferent, unless a parlor – many of which can charitably be called seedy – pops up close by

Restrictions on where they can locate and on their proximity to one another, or regulation to ensure a modicum of fairness in their operation, might be more practical than an endless, expensive and often futile attempt to close them down altogether.