On Tuesday, we can vote for whomever we want, but we don’t get to pick where we vote. We might get assigned to vote at a school, church, library, community center, or whatever. But where we vote actually makes a difference to how we vote.
A variety of academic research demonstrates this effect. In particular, when people vote in schools, they’re more likely to vote for higher taxes that would increase spending on public education. If they’re voting in a church, they’re more likely to vote against stem-cell research and gay marriage.
Our surroundings matter. The messaging around us matters. The small implicit and explicit environmental factors around us matter. This is a big reason why the entire advertising industry exists — to use messages that shape the choices consumers make. The campaign process is no different, except that the final step between voters and a selection is a totally random, possibly vote-changing environment.
Research from Stanford showed this effect, not just in a hypothetical situation, but in real elections with real differences in results. They looked at the results for several propositions in both Arizona and California, where the topics included stem-cell funding and raising taxes to increase education spending. The research showed that once you controlled for effects like demographics and political views, there was a meaningful impact due to the location of where the votes took place.
For example, people voting at a school were more likely than other voters (55 vs 53 percent) to support an initiative to raise the Arizona state sales tax in order to fund education.
It’s not just the Stanford study. Several other studies have shown the same effect in several U.S. states and in Germany.
Abraham Rutchick of CSUN wrote a paper showing that in South Carolina, when people voted in a church, they were more likely to support a conservative Republican challenger than when people voted at secular locations (41 vs 32 percent).
An Oklahoma State University paper found Oklahoma residents in 2008 were more likely to support education reforms when they voted in a church rather than a community building. The same authors wrote another paper about voting results in Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota. That research showed voters filling out ballots in churches were less supportive of same-sex marriage, while voters in schools were more supportive of education policies.
In Germany, a similar effect was found. Voting behavior is influenced by the location of where the vote happens. This research focused on precinct-level data in Hamburg and Berlin.
Due to these location-bases biases, some academics have even published articles saying places like schools and churches shouldn’t be allowed to hold voting. One article in the Boston University Law Review is titled The Polling Place Priming (PPP) Effect: Is Voting in Churches (or Anywhere Else) Unconstitutional?
Some states — like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado — have moved toward a mail-in ballot system, making the polling place issue less relevant there.
So this Election Day, it’s something to think about — in advance, before you walk into your voting location. Do you know what you’re voting for and why?