One machine was broken, the other generated 'apparently valid results'
By Todd Northrop
The Arizona Lottery released the report last month from the Multi-State Lottery Association's (MUSL) investigation of a computerized drawing malfunction that caused the same winning numbers to be generated in successive drawings.
When lottery drawings are discussed or envisioned by members of the public, one imagines a spinning drum of numbered balls from which the lucky winning numbers are drawn. It's a relatively fail-safe method of picking numbers randomly because even if something goes wrong, it is simple for anyone watching to see the problem and fix it.
However a growing trend for the past couple of decades at United States lotteries is the use of computers to generate simulated random numbers, in an effort to squeeze minor cost savings from the daily drawing process. But as lottery players have seen time and time again, these "computerized drawings" are literally impossible for a human being to witness (because it all happens inside a computer) and errors in the drawing process continue to be present until members of the public notice that something is wrong with the numbers generated.
In October 2017, the Arizona Lottery experienced such an event, when the same numbers were being generated multiple days in a row. (See Arizona Lottery computerized drawing machine generated identical winning numbers, Lottery Post, Oct. 6, 2017.) The lottery was forced to remove the random number generator (RNG) computer and switch to a backup.
A month later, the lottery pulled a second machine due to the same Pick 3 numbers being generated multiple times, and the Arizona Lottery's Executive Director instructed MUSL to investigate the RNG machines in response to what he termed "irregular draw results".
An independent investigation was then conducted on the Arizona Lottery's draw machines that were operated by MUSL. According to the Arizona Lottery, the investigation was conducted by a third-party forensic technology firm and a statistical expert to evaluate historic draw events.
In March, a final 3-page report was released. (The report can be viewed in the Related Links section below.)
The investigation found that the machine initially taken out of service in October, 2017, was physically broken. The RNG computers rely on a physical device that measures the decay of radioactive material in order to create a random "seed value" from which the winning numbers are then generated. That physical device apparently overheated and broke, causing the seed value to always be a zero value.
Compounding the problem was the fact that the computer's program code did not check to be sure a valid seed value was used to generate the winning numbers; it just accepted the value of "zero" every time and proceeded to generate the winning numbers from it. Because the seed value was always zero, the winning numbers generated were always the same.
The second back-up computerized drawing machine taken out of service in November, 2017, was found to be operating properly by the investigation. Although the machine generated the same Pick 3 winning numbers three times within a few weeks, the report deemed it a statistical anomaly, and the repeated numbers were in fact "apparently valid results".
This is not the first problem with computerized drawings in Arizona. In 2013, the Arizona Lottery discovered there was an issue in the Pick 3 programming code that prevented the numbers eight and nine from being drawn in certain positions. This error resulted in 92.3 percent of tickets purchased having a better chance to win, and caused 7.7 percent to have no chance of winning.
(See COMPUTERIZED DRAWING GLITCH STRIKES ARIZONA LOTTERY, Lottery Post, Aug. 20, 2013.)
Incredibly, that problem persisted to two months before it was found by lottery players who noticed that certain combinations were never being drawn. The lottery had no idea there was a problem with their computerized drawings; if players did not discover the problem, it might have gone on for years before it was discovered.
For many lottery players the drawing errors and subsequent investigation serve as a reminder of their displeasure over state lotteries insisting on using computers to draw the winning numbers.
In a lottery player's eyes, the most important thing a lottery does is to conduct drawings. Why then would state lotteries continue to use computers for this all-important process, when it has been shown in dozens of such incidents in recent years that computerized drawings fail repeatedly, rendering huge swaths of lottery tickets incapable of winning?
When is the last time you saw an investigation of a real lottery ball drawing?
There is one infamous ball drawing that occurred in Pennsylvania in 1980 — nearly 40 years ago — in which lottery personnel rigged a drawing. Lottery insiders who push computerized drawings like to keep resurfacing that incident, because "any type of drawing can be rigged". But that red herring actually illustrates historically just how safe real ball drawings have been, and also how problems with real ball drawings are relatively easy to catch.
The bad actors were caught quickly in that case, as opposed to Eddie Tipton, who rigged computerized drawings across several states for years, robbing lottery players of millions of dollars — and was only caught because he was a poor thief, captured on surveillance footage buying the winning ticket himself.
State lotteries portray themselves as "transparent" with acts such as releasing this investigative report. However, that transparency does not seem to extend to a real, honest discussion of the issues identified over and over with computerized drawings, and a clear explanation of why on Earth certain state lotteries insist on using computers to generate the winning numbers.
Lottery players do not want to keep hearing about "how random" computers can be, because that is not the issue. The issue is all of the other problems: the inability to witness the drawings; the fact that programming errors will never be completely eliminated from the process, ensuring repeated problems in the future; the fact that computerized drawings can never be secured from tampering the way that real ball drawings can; the fact that computerized drawings can never be audited the way that real ball drawings can.
The ironic thing about the Arizona Lottery drawing fiasco last year is that when they were forced to pull the second computerized drawing machine, how did they quickly fix the problem and ensure the drawing problems were eliminated? By re-instituting their real ball drawing machines.
Sadly, on Dec. 11, 2017, the Arizona Lottery installed new computerized drawing machines and put the real ball machines back into storage.
The Arizona Lottery issued a statement that it is committed to protecting its players, the integrity of the Lottery and transparency to the residents of Arizona. We hope that commitment of transparency and integrity includes an explanation of their insistence on using computers to generate the winning numbers, as well as an indication of exactly how many such incidents will occur before they switch back to real ball drawings for good.