This article is reprinted from Campus Progress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.
As recovering online poker addict Lauren Patrizi noted on Campus Progress in July, millions of college students have spent the last few years making bets—and losing money—in cash games on the Internet. In the next few weeks, that number will likely drop to something pretty close to zero, because many gaming sites have shut out U.S. players in response to legislation signed by President Bush on October 13. Coming just weeks before a pivotal election, the legislation could be a timely reminder for gamblers that electoral politics can be as powerful as the flip of a card—and, if left unchecked, as capricious.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) surprised most gamblers when it zipped through Congress in September as a rider in a bill protecting port safety, inserted late in the game by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Promoted in various forms for years by an alliance of moralists and profit seekers, the law bans U.S. financial institutions from processing transactions to online gaming sites. Although a handful of sites continue to serve U.S. gamblers under the tenuous legal argument that poker should be exempt from the new law because it is a game of skill, not chance, most of the largest sites have already closed their cash games to U.S. players, threatening to bring to an end a fad that has enthralled as many as 23 million Americans.
Obviously a smattering of hedonistic liberals and libertarians are outraged, but even some conservatives are picking up on the fact that the act is both bad politics and bad policy. Charles Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argued in The New York Times that the ban will alienate voters who he guesses are likely to be Republicans, and undermine Americans’ respect for the law in the same way that Prohibition did. In Newsweek, conservative economist George Will writes that, like any infringement on the free market, the ban will prevent an industry, and the economy at large, from growing. Indeed, the ban has the potential to put American money in foreign banks, send jobs overseas, and drive underground a multibillion dollar industry that could be regulated and taxed.
The ban on online poker could have more dramatic political consequences. As part of a homeland security bill, the UIGEA ostensibly aims to eliminate the unlikely possibility that online casinos might be the location of money laundering by terrorists. By conflating terror fears and morality, the Bush administration once again has pushed harsh restrictions through Congress. One blogger even imagined a scenario in which an employee of an off-shore internet gambling company entering the United States could be detained indefinitely as an enemy combatant—a scenario he concedes is far-fetched, but definitely possible under the terms of the UIGEA.
The ban’s actual political ramifications will likely be more mundane, but no less important. For poker players, the ban confirms in a very real way what we already know: The Bush administration really does want to interfere in our daily lives. Especially compared with the disquieting but also distant National Security Administration surveillance program, the bill is a concrete example of the right’s repressive ambitions and the way the White House conflates morality and terror fears to keep Americans compliant.
Additionally, the rider’s rapid passage as part of the SAFE Port Act (“ to improve maritime and cargo security through enhanced layered defenses, and for other purposes”) is a useful reminder that, despite appearances, the government can act quickly when operating without checks on its power. While the biggest issues of the day—equal marriage rights, the budget deficit, the war in Iraq—are arguably more substantive than the right to gamble freely on the internet, legislative approaches to them so far have been more grandstanding than productive. That legislation can pass without the faintest hint of public debate underscores how important it is to elect legislators we can trust.
Finally, and perhaps most important in the coming weeks, the UIGEA could galvanize a segment of the electorate that historically doesn’t show up at the polls; only 22 percent of young adults between 18 and 29 years old voted in the last midterm election. But at PartyPoker.com, until earlier this month the most popular poker site, users can send a form letter to their legislators urging changes to the bill. The letter closes, “I am a voter, I am a poker player and I remember.”
Online poker aficionados won’t have to wait long for an opportunity to prove that they remember. With one of the largest sites, PokerRoom.com, closing its cash games to Americans on November 6, there might just be about 23 million Americans with nothing better to do the next day than vote. Their recent experience with the UIGEA has shown them—and reminded us all—that the political stakes are far higher than in any cash game.
Philissa Cramer is a writer living in New York.