Are Powerball Drawings Really Random?

Tuesday October 30, 2018 05:10 am

The Lottery Lab Staff

Many people let the Quick Pick option select randomly generated numbers for them. These people hope that the selected numbers will give them an advantage because they believe that all the numbers have an equal probability of being selected.

But even if Quick Pick numbers are really random, does that apply to the lottery itself?

As an example, consider the Powerball drawing. Winning numbers are selected from two clear containers. One container contains 69 white balls with integers from 1 to 69 printed on the balls. The other container contains 26 red balls with integers from 1 to 26 printed on them. The balls are dropped into their respective containers and mixed by injecting air into the bottom of the container. Before each ball is drawn, the air is stopped and a ball is raised from the bottom and removed from the container. This procedure is repeated once for each the five white balls and once for the red ball.

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable procedure to randomize a lottery. However, there are two factors which can prevent the Powerball from being truly random.

The first factor is gravity. The printing on the balls requires different amounts of ink for different numbers. Thus individual balls may weigh more than other balls due to the extra ink they require.  Almost all modern lotteries weigh their balls before a drawing to make sure there is not a significant difference between them, these tests allow for differences which are deemed insignificant. The question is whether these differences really are insignificant?

The second factor to consider is air friction. The surfaces of individual balls have subtle variations which can make the balls behave differently inside the drawing container. Unlike testing for weight, testing for aerodynamics is much more difficult and not routinely done. Instead, lottery officials rely on statistical analysis to assure themselves that this (or some other factor) is not biasing the lottery results.

Fortunately, there are statistical tools to help us test these theories. Of course, lottery commissions do their analysis privately and offer the public no data or proof that the lotteries are free of bias.

This should concern us because insider fraud like the infamous triple six fix indicate that lottery officials are not always the most trustworthy people. In that case, lottery officials added extra paint to the balls with the number 6 on them and almost stole a huge amount.

While the studies and statistical data on actual lotteries may be shrouded in corporate reports, the tools to test these assumptions are at your fingertips.