The sanctity of the act of voting in America is respected. There are signs outside polling places warning campaigners to stay away and campaigning is barred inside. The goal is to preserve the privacy of the polling booth and shield it from external influences. But does it work?
Studies by Cal State Northridge psychology professor Abraham M. Rutchick, recently published in “Political Psychology,” suggest that the polling place may not be as neutral as it seems.
“Political scientists usually argue that when people go into the voting booth they pretty much know how they are going to vote and nothing is going to change that,” Rutchick said. “The argument is that undecided voters who are still undecided won’t bother voting. My counter is that there are always a number of things on the ballot, and a voter only hs to have a firm opinion on one of them to motivate a trip to the polling place.”
Rutchick has spent several years studying how just the location of a polling place can influence a person’s vote. His research has shown people voting in a church are more likely to support a more conservative candidate and a ban on same-sex marriage. He pointed out that other researchers have found that people voting at a school site tend to favor education measures.
“It’s the subtle influences that matter,” he said.
Rutchick began his research nearly a decade ago when he examined data from two elections in South Carolina, comparing the results of votes cast in churches to votes cast in other polling places. He also conducted a field experiment in which participants evaluated two insurance claims, one relevant and one irrelevant to Christian values, while standing in either a chapel or an academic building. Last, he conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants were subliminally exposed to ecclesiastical or control images before completing the insurance claim decision-making task.
The results of the studies present what he called “converging evidence that the presence of churches can impact political decision making.”
“Churches were associated with the support of a conservative candidate and for a conservative constitutional amendment, but only if the amendment was relevant to Christian values. The presence of a chapel and exposure to ecclesiastical images lowered insurance awards, but only to claimants who violated Christian values,” he said. “Thus, the studies demonstrate that the influence of churches on decision making is not only powerful but precise.”
Rutchick said this effect happens only in Christians, non-Christians are not affected.
His studies support findings by other researchers that demonstrate “the priming of attitudes, values and norms by incidental exposure to meaning-laden environments and objects,” he said.
His findings suggests that the use of churches as polling places could be advantageous to politically conservative candidates and to the supporters of conservative positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other relevant issues.
“Importantly, though, it should be noted that churches are probably not unique,” Rutchick said. “Other locations used as polling places could also prime attitudes and values. Police stations, for instance, might activate respect for authority, fire departments might activate helping norms and schools might activate intellectual curiosity.
“And, if you happen to be voting in an old, run-down school auditorium, you could look around you, see the torn up floors and beat up walls, think ‘kids really shouldn’t be going to school in a place like this,’ and vote for a school bond measure.”
Rutchick said if government officials truly want to keep the voting experience free from undue influence, they should consider all-mail balloting.
“Such ballots can be completed anywhere, but are often filled out in voters’ homes,” he said. “Homes are unique environments that reflect their owners’ personalities, beliefs and attitudes. As such, voting by mail would seem to insulate citizens from location influenced biases, or at least limit potential biases to those already possessed by the voters themselves.”
Rutchick said his findings suggest that voting and other political decisions are subject to transient and contextual influences to a greater degree than most people believe.
“The expression of political attitudes, like the expression of other attitudes, depends in significant part on the environment in which the attitude is expressed,” he said. “It is clear that ‘undecided’ voters can be effectively influenced by stimuli far less overt than an eleventh-hour television ad or canvassing effort.”
California State University, Northridge has more than 35,000 full- and part-time students and offers 66 bachelor’s and 53 master’s degrees as well as 28 teaching credential programs. Founded in 1958, CSUN is among the largest single-campus universities in the nation and the only four-year public university in the San Fernando Valley. The university serves as the intellectual, economic and cultural heart of the Valley and beyond.