By Graham Moomaw
Virginia liquor officials said they’re taking steps to automate the random lottery process for rare bottles after an outcry from bourbon enthusiasts who say the state bungled a recent lottery and allowed some entrants to win multiple bottles despite steep odds of that outcome occurring naturally.
The leadership of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority discussed the lottery issues Tuesday morning during a meeting of the authority’s board of directors.
ABC officials told the board a problem occurred in the last lottery — which had more than 40,000 entries — due to a “breakdown in Excel sorting,” referring to the commonly used data processing software Microsoft Excel. The authority was using Excel to sort through lottery entries and determine the winners.
“I can’t speak to the inner workings of Excel. It sorted some of it and didn’t sort some of the rest,” said ABC Director of Internal Audit Mike Skrocki.
The authority also offered assurances that the possibility for human or spreadsheet errors would be reduced under a new system that will require less human oversight to pick winners at random. Officials indicated the new system will be implemented immediately and is expected to be formally announced when the next round of lottery results go out.
The previous system, said ABC Chief Digital and Branding Officer Vida Williams, allowed lottery entrants to enter multiple times using different home and email addresses. Though winners are asked to show identification to verify their address when they go to pick up a bottle they won, ABC officials said the old system appeared to let one person submit 241 different lottery entries.
“Our old process was very manual,” said Skrocki. “You could put Sesame Street as your address. It’s going to take it.”
Officials said they weren’t sure if allowing multiple entries contributed to some people seeming to defy the odds to win multiple bottles. But addresses will be more diligently verified going forward, they said, by checking them using location data from Google. The authority will also be implementing a stronger review process to check the results for statistical anomalies, officials said.
“The automated process does dramatically decrease the opportunity to game the system,” Williams said.
The lottery controversy is the latest rare-liquor drama for ABC, whose internal logistics data was offered for sale online last year to help bourbon hunters get a head start on figuring out which ABC stores would be getting highly sought-after products that aren’t usually available. The two men involved in the scheme, one a former ABC employee, both pleaded guilty to one felony charge related to computer trespassing.
The authority’s explanation of what Williams called a “hiccup” hasn’t satisfied many of its customers. Statements ABC has posted on Facebook about the matter have been followed by a flood of skeptical responses, many questioning why the state should even be in the business of running liquor lotteries.
“In addition to the government not being able to properly run a booze raffle, a booze raffle exists,” wrote one Facebook commenter.
Another respondent quoted a line about propaganda from George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” the commenter wrote. “It was their final, most essential command.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, authority officials reiterated their belief that the flaws in the recent lottery didn’t appear to be intentional mischief by ABC employees and noted that anyone employed by the authority is barred from participating in the lotteries.
“We believe in equitable access to all of the products that we sell,” Williams said.
Williams also noted that most lotteries ABC conducted within the past year did not see similar problems, calling that “part of that story that is missing.”
“It made us seem like we’re a lot more egregious in oversight than we actually have been,” she said.
Some ABC board members pressed for more information on exactly where the problem occurred and how the new system would prevent it from happening again.
Board Chair Tim Hugo, a former Republican delegate, asked if the authority’s new system was something already being used successfully elsewhere or a system designed internally that would be more like a “beta test.”
ABC officials said elements of the new system are commonly accepted industry standards without going into specifics about the technology powering the new process.
“If you don’t know exactly how it happened other than that there were vulnerabilities … how do you know that this solution of dealing with the addresses stops the problem?” asked ABC board member Mark Rubin, who previously served as a senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., when Kaine was governor.
Authority officials said the new process will also involve a new, algorithmically driven way of picking winners at random, removing the need for manual sorting of Excel spreadsheets.
“We run the randomization through a statistical process,” said Williams.
Rubin noted he had gone to law school because statistics weren’t his strong suit.
“So your confidence level is very high that this problem is eliminated?” Rubin asked.
Williams replied: “My confidence is exceptionally high.”
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