The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

Does where you vote affect how you vote?

Does where you vote affect how you vote?

Whenever there is an election in Southern California, I take students out to study how polling places actually work. We have visited a variety of polling places including garages or living rooms, schools, fire stations, restaurants, stores, and churches.

For many students it is their first visit to a polling place. They are frequently amazed, and sometimes appalled, to see a polling place in a cramped garage, a busy ethnic restaurant, or a church where religious iconography is prominently displayed.

Garages are often poorly lit, cramped or insecure. And because the space is limited voting in private is difficult. Schools can be problematic. A good example was polling taking place in a school gym where physical education classes are held, making for a noisy and distracting voting experience. Polling places located in businesses might lack parking, or also might have distractions and be cramped, too.

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Clearly, inconvenient or distracting polling places are serious problems. Inconveniences like a lack of parking or lousy locations do prevent people from voting. Distractions in a polling place might also lead to higher rates of voter or poll worker errors. Such problems are the likely causes for some of the millions of "lost votes" plaguing recent U.S. presidential elections, according to research groups like our Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

While distractions and inconveniences do affect these polling places, there are other, more subtle problems that have remained poorly researched until recently. Those subtle problems might sway voters to support certain types of candidates or ballot measures.

In recent years, issues like same-sex marriage and abortion have been on the ballot in many states; oftentimes, religious groups and churches have very specific positions on these socially divisive issues. In such situations, voters voting in a church might pick up subtle cues from these environments, activating attitudes, values, and predispositions all of which may then influence how people cast ballots.

Colleague Thad Hall outside a polling place at the Sister Fabian HallAnother example is when public school funding or other issues regarding public education are on the ballot. In such situations, voters who are casting ballots in a public school -- in particular in the presence of children, teachers and administrators -- might also pick up cues, or have other attitudes or predispositions activated.

These concerns have merit, according to two peer-reviewed papers published recently. The first of these papers, by Berger, Meredith and Wheeler (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2008) used data from the 2000 Arizona general election and an online experiment to see if the environments affected support of education spending measures. They found that "The type of polling location where people were assigned to vote influenced how they ended up casting their ballot" (p. 8848). School environments made voters more likely to support school funding initiatives.

A more recent paper published in Political Psychology looked at the cues activated by religion-related images in churches. The author, Abraham Rutchick, found "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" (p. 222).

While more research is necessary, it is clear that polling environments may influence how voters support certain issues. While it is not yet possible to know how many votes might be swayed, this research might lead election officials to rethink the use of polling locations that might influence how people vote.

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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