Why Can't We Bet On U.S. Elections? Blame 16th Century Rome

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You can spend millions on lobbyists or ads to influence the presidential election, but it is mostly illegal to bet on who will win the White House. But centuries ago, people bet on the papal election.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's never too early to bet on the presidential election. Oddsmakers and websites are perfectly ready to take your money now. And you may recall that betting made news in the 2012 election. Many people were convinced the polls were wrong and that Mitt Romney was going to win. But a betting site called Intrade suggested a majority of the money was on President Obama. Gambling on something as vital as an election sounds unseemly. But it has an upside, as David Kestenbaum of NPR's Planet Money team found when he learned a little history.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: In 16th-century Rome, people bet on all kinds of things, foot races, horse races, tennis matches, also whether a pregnant woman from the neighborhood was going to have a boy or a girl. The big bets, though, were on a very important election, the election of the pope.

JOHN HUNT: For Rome, that's the be-all-end-all event.

KESTENBAUM: They're betting on who the next pope is going to be.

HUNT: Yeah, it's called scalmezzi de fare il papa.

KESTENBAUM: This is historian John Hunt at Utah Valley University who just published a paper about this. Just like today, the cardinals electing the pope would all go to the Vatican palace. And the doors would be locked behind them. But while the cardinals were in there working out the will of God, outside the walls there was gambling - lots of gambling on who the cardinals were going to pick.

HUNT: A small-time artisan might bet, you know, five, 10, 20 scutti, which is a lot of money. Three scutti was three gold coins. That's a salary for a month.

KESTENBAUM: That was at the low end. Some bets were truly huge, tens of thousands of gold coins.

HUNT: Let's just say that would be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

KESTENBAUM: This caused problems for the church. In part because people had all these bets on the outcome, information from the secret deliberations kept leaking out. The palace was locked, but there were holes. You had to get food in and out, after all. Food, supplies all that got passed through a turning wheel in the wall - like a Lazy Susan.

HUNT: Somebody passed a glove through the turning wheel. And inside the glove was a note. And another good case is Cardinal Antonio Barberini, he actually carved a little hole out near his cell that gave him a little crack so he could talk to the outside world.

KESTENBAUM: These handwritten newsletters circulated in town, reporting the latest gossip and also the latest betting odds. The church tried all kinds of things to stop the leaks. They fortified the palace.

HUNT: More guards. They would also reinforce all the doors.

KESTENBAUM: They told the clergy in the Vatican, no more leaking - got everyone to promise.

HUNT: They swore on a Bible that, you know, they will desist from leaking information, not talk to the outside world, not spread any more gossip.

KESTENBAUM: Does it work?

HUNT: I would say no. Information is still leaking out. They even made an example of a few people by, you know, having some people tortured. And it didn't stop.

KESTENBAUM: In 1592, Pope Gregory XIV pulls out the big guns, says bet on an election and you will be excommunicated. That does it. The betting goes away. John Hunt says looking back, the gambling was not all bad. For ordinary people on the streets of Rome, it gave them information about what was going on inside the Vatican.

HUNT: People knew what was going on in the election. So it made the election process more transparent.

KESTENBAUM: In a way they might not if the gambling hadn't existed.

HUNT: Exactly. And that was perhaps a good thing.

KESTENBAUM: It is tempting to think of elections as something that should be pure and free from outside influence. But as with our presidential elections today, Hunt says there was a lot of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes - kings trying to get their way, a French pope or maybe a Spanish pope. The betting at least brought some of that out into the open. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.