The casting of lots to make decisions or determine fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. However, lotteries as means of raising money for public purposes are more recent. The first public lotteries were recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and to help poor people.

A common element of all lotteries is that the bettors must have some way of recording their identities and the amounts they stake. Often this is accomplished by writing the name and amount on a ticket that is then deposited with the lottery organization for subsequent shuffling and possible selection in the drawing. Generally, there is some percentage of the total prize pool that goes to costs and profits of the lottery organization. The remaining portion is available for prizes to the winners.

During the first few years after the start of most state lotteries, a substantial portion of the revenue that they generate is used for advertising and promotion. This tends to skew the decision-making process for lottery officials, as they are pressured to maximize revenues by expanding into new games and promoting them heavily. This inevitably leads to the question of whether promoting gambling, even in small doses, is an appropriate function for a government agency, particularly given the negative consequences that gambling can have on the poor and problem gamblers.