West Virginia became the first state to offer bets on politics - then quickly retreated

A little-known 1868 statute scuttled what could have been a new U.S. gambling market
Image: President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bojangles Coliseum
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, N.C., on March 2, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP file

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By David K. Li

West Virginia "screwed up" and briefly became the first state to offer legal wagering on political races - before pulling the plug and citing a little known, 19th century prohibition, officials said Wednesday.

The West Virginia Lottery, which runs sports betting in the state, authorized its operators on Tuesday to offer bets on politics, most notably this fall's presidential election.

Then a short time later, one of those contractors, New York-based FanDuel, posted odds on the current White House race. But within an hour, FanDuel - which runs sports betting at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulfur Springs and offers online gaming in West Virginia - stopped taking those bets.

West Virginia Lottery Director John Myers acknowledged Wednesday that his agency acted unilaterally and hadn't informed Gov. Jim Justice about the new betting option.

“I thought it would be okay, but after review, it was clearly a mistake. We just screwed up," Myers said in a statement. "I didn’t have the authority to do it, it should have never happened and I apologize to everyone.”

The brief institution of political betting also blindsided West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, who said the lottery commission would be breaking an 1868 state law against such wagers.

"Gambling on the outcome of an election has no place in our American democracy," Warner, whose office oversees elections in West Virginia, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever."

He added: "This is a terrible idea. Let’s shut this down right now and be very clear about it."

In the odds briefly offered by FanDuel, President Donald Trump was a slight favorite to beat apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden in November.

A backer of Trump would have had to bet $110 to profit $100, while someone believing in Biden would've wagered $100 to net $125.

One small bet was taken in this brief window in West Virginia and it'll be refunded, FanDuel said.

If U.S. sports books ever accepted bets on presidential races, the handle would be at least 10 times as much as wagers on the Super Bowl, according to Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of Westgate Resort & Casino SuperBook in Las Vegas.

"More people have an opinion on politics than football," Kornegay told NBC News on Wednesday.

But regulators have been against allowing such action, fearing the bets themselves could "possibly sway voters one way or another," the oddsmaker said.