This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.
Sandy Johnson is a hypothetical voter in Mount Vernon, Ohio.
She plans to vote in the upcoming election about whether to raise property taxes in order to fund the city’s public school system. The mother of two adult children, she no longer has kids of her own to send to school. While she places a high value on the education her children received in the city’s public school system, she feels that much of the school system’s money has been wasted in recent years. She respects the idea of well-funded public schools, but still plans to vote against the tax increase on Election Day.
But when Sandy actually shows up to vote, something funny happens: She can’t shake the idea that she owes it to the other moms of Mount Vernon, those who still have children in the school system, to support their kids’ right to a quality education. Sandy realizes that she can’t bring herself to vote against the schools.
She spends five minutes in the polling booth, but eventually casts a “yes” vote. When asked about her vote later, she says that she “felt it in her gut” that she was making the right choice.
What made her change her mind? Where she happened to vote. Her polling location is Mount Vernon High School.
Both laboratory and archival research has shown that polling locations relevant to ballot issues can influence election returns, among other political decisions. By physically voting in a school, Sandy was unconsciously primed to favor policies that would be beneficial to schools.
One study, conducted by researchers at Baylor University, showed that people surveyed about attitudes towards religion are more conservative and sympathetic to Christians when surveyed near a church.
Another found that religious people primed with religious cues are less sympathetic to abortion, compared to those who evaluate claims in a neutral environment. In the latter study, findings were replicated in laboratory, survey and field settings; in other words, the effects were found in on-screen priming, questionnaires in which participants evaluated insurance claims for abortion pills (with workers’ compensation claims as a control) and in actual voting behavior.
With this research in mind, the Boston University Law Review published a paper arguing against the constitutionality of in-person voting in general, arguing that the potential for primes in almost any voting setting have the potential to violate both the First and Fourteenth Amendments. If our speech, represented by our vote, is manipulated by our surroundings, it isn’t really free. Since different stimuli have different priming effects on different people (church affects religious people more than secular people, e.g.), our treatment under the law with respect to polling places is unequal.
Since environmental primes are inevitable, it’s hard to take seriously the idea of legislating, or adjudicating, them away. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep their effects in mind; the more cognizant we are of unconscious influences, the more able we are to look past them.
Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on morals, frames and commitments.