Where you vote – at a school, or a church – affects “how” you vote

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.

Voting booth via Shutterstock

Voting booth via Shutterstock

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.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “Where you vote – at a school, or a church – affects “how” you vote”

  1. hollywoodstein says:

    Just because you were the only one to complain doesn’t mean you weren’t right. It’s good to see your single complaint got someone to think and resulted in positive change. Well done.

  2. silas1898 says:

    After a move across the state, my new polling place was the Evangelical Lutheran Church. I had always voted in the Town Hall or the Senior Center and did not like this at all. The place was plastered with various bible verses, murals, the whole bit.

    I wrote a complaint to the Board of Elections and got back a nice letter thanking me, but said I was the only one who complained.

    Next year, all the religious stuff was covered up! I’ll take it. A year or so later, it moved to the Town Hall, now to the new Middle School I can walk to :)

  3. Naja pallida says:

    Someone might want to come explain this theory to Texas, which often has polling places in schools. You might have to do so slowly, and use small words.

  4. Ndokaa Bundu says:

    I vote at the women’s shelter across the street. anyway, now I’m worried that people who vote by absentee ballot in their own home away from any other people may be influenced to vote libertarian.

  5. citizen_spot says:

    Hmmm, my voting place is the poolside clubhouse of the private community down the street. The only time we are welcome to dare pass the gate is on voting day. ; )

  6. cole3244 says:

    my objection has to do with separation of church & state, i realize most people see no reason to enforce that but it is necessary in a supposed democracy, which we at least used to try and be.

  7. condew says:

    I agree, to pick a church as a polling place is to favor that place’s religion over all others.

    On the other hand, if I were a school principal, I’d be in constant contact with the election board volunteering my school as a polling place. On the other hand, the article gives no numbers. Where you vote may have a difference that is statistically significant, but insignificant in a practical sense.

  8. cole3244 says:

    churches or places of worship should not be used as voting places under any circumstances.

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