Blame it on the polling location

Back in May, we blogged about some strange voting findings, and referenced a study showing that the polling place exerts a strange influence on the voting decision.

People who vote in schools are more likely to support propositions for more education funding. (Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith, and S. Christian Wheeler) used 2000 data from an Arizona referendum proposing to raising the state sales tax from 5.0 percent to 5.6 percent with the money going to education. By a count of 55 percent to 53.09 percent, voters in schools were more likely to support this initiative than those in other polling places like churches or community centers.

The three authors have just published a follow-up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (which requires a subscription to read so check out the Stanford release on it). To verify their results with the 2000 data the researchers tested whether “differences in the preferences of school vs. nonschool voters could be driving (the) results” by looking at how voters in school polling booths voted on initiatives that had nothing to do with education, such as wildlife and property taxes. A statistically significant effect on vote choice for these other areas, although interesting, would undercut their initial hypothesis that the polling environment influences voting behavior on those issues that have a connection to the given environment. The authors were pleased to find no effects.

The authors extended their analysis with a laboratory experiment that attempted to mimic a voting decision. Voters were randomly shown 10 pictures from schools or churches (things like lockers, desks, pews, etc.) as well as five pictures of generic office buildings (the control group only saw office buildings). Participants proceeded to vote on a series of exact legislative initiatives including Arizona’s education funding proposal and California’s 2004 proposal to fund stem cell research with state money.

As in the 2000 results, environmental cues in the lab experiment influenced voting. Voters were less likely to support the stem cell proposal “if they were shown church images than if they were shown school images or a generic photo of a building.” Similarly, they were once again more likely to support the education initiative if they were shown school photos.

From the paper’s discussion section:

The results also have important policy implications.The government currently goes to great lengths to eliminate undue influence on voting by prohibiting campaigning, posting signage or using sound-amplification devices within a certain distance of polling locations…These data suggest that parties interested in avoiding undue influence may also want to attend to a more inconspicuous influence—the polling environment itself. If certain polling locations are clearly related to initiatives or candidates, administrators could use more neutral locations (if equally convenient and accessible) to minimize bias.

This does not mean that electoral officials should rush to eliminate schools as polling places, however, particularly because it is unclear that any polling location is context-free. In addition, because the observed effects are smaller than some other potential voting influences (e.g., turnout), one must weigh the benefits of changes to the current system against these other factors. If potentially biasing locations are used, however, one could take steps to minimize their influence. For example, having people vote in a generic multipurpose room rather than a school hallway filled with children or a church room containing religious images.

At the very least, this study should spark some more verification of the results.

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