Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Where You Vote Affects How You Vote

• February 11, 2010 • 10:45 AM

New research suggests locating polling places in churches may affect how people vote on social-values issues.

In 2008, a trio of scholars found the location of a polling place can affect how people vote. Specifically, they discovered that in the 2000 Arizona election, voters who cast their ballots in schools were more likely to support a school-funding initiative.

Those researchers raised the troubling question of whether casting ballots in churches — the most common polling location in America, according to the American Humanist Association — might alter voters’ decisions on social-values issues.

Newly published research provides evidence that it does.

“Polling locations can exert a powerful and precise influence on political attitudes and decision-making,” psychologist Abraham Rutchick of California State University, Northridge, writes in the journal Political Psychology. He describes five studies that, together, “suggest that the use of churches as polling places could be advantageous to politically conservative candidates and to supporters of conservative positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other relevant issues.”

In one study, Rutchick examined the 2004 election in South Carolina’s Sixth Congressional District between Democratic incumbent James Clyburn and Republican challenger Gary McLeod. After controlling for party identification, he found that McLeod received 41 percent of the votes cast at churches, compared to 32 percent at secular locations. (Thirty-five churches were used as polling places, compared to 371 secular locations.)

A second South Carolina study examined the 2006 general election, which featured several proposed amendments to the state constitution. Rutchick compared voting results in churches and non-church polling places on two of the amendments. One sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman; another, more secular proposal involved restricting the state’s power of eminent domain.

After controlling for race, gender, age, party affiliation and the per capita number of churches in the county, he found that the definition-of-marriage amendment was supported by 83 percent of people voting in houses of worship compared to 81.5 percent of those voting elsewhere. Support for the eminent domain amendment was virtually identical in the two locations: 91.8 percent vs. 91.5 percent.

In a related field experiment, Rutchick and his colleagues asked 77 college undergraduates to play the role of insurance adjuster and evaluate two compensation claims: one for the use of an “abortion pill,” the other for a work-related injury. Half performed the task in the atrium of a nondenominational university chapel; the others did so in the lobby of an academic building on the same campus.

Those in the chapel gave significantly less money to the abortion-pill defendant than those in the academic building. In contrast, they gave more money to the workman’s comp defendant than those in the secular location, suggesting the chapel may have evoked general feelings of charity along with negative emotions regarding abortion. A subsequent study found that the effect was only present for Christians; non-Christian participants were unaffected by where the task was performed.

“These findings suggest that voting and other political decisions are subject to transient and contextual influences to a greater degree than is accounted for by many conceptualizations of voting behavior,” Rutchick concludes. “The expression of political attitudes, like the expression of other attitudes, depends in significant part on the environment in which the attitude is expressed.”

“Police stations, for instance, might activate respect for authority,” he writes. “Fire departments might activate helping norms.”

Perhaps, with the increased use of voting by mail, this issue will eventually become moot. Nevertheless, given the growing evidence that subtle stimuli can affect our attitudes, it’s odd to consider how seriously we take the separation of church and state, and how little thought we give to the partition of polls and pews.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.