Study: Your Polling Place Affects How You Vote

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A new study shows that where you vote affects how you vote. People who vote in schools, for example, are more likely to support a school funding initiative. The researchers suggest that the same sort of psychology might affect people who vote in churches.


When people head to the polls this November, they'll be walking into many kinds of places, from schools to churches to private homes. It turns out where you vote might actually affect how you vote.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Marc Meredith is a political scientist who started thinking about voting locations a few years ago. He's at MIT now, but back then, he was going to graduate school at Stanford University in California. And he was friends with a guy named Jonah Berger, who studies consumer decision-making.

Mr. MARC MEREDITH (Political Scientist): We lived probably within, I'd say, a quarter of a mile from each other but we were separated by a street that ended up being the dividing line, apparently, for where they designed the precincts. And so, Jonah voted at a fire station and I was assigned to vote at a school.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Isn't it weird, they thought, to vote in such different places? Could it change how we vote? They talked about this with another Stanford scientist, Christian Wheeler. His polling place was a church. The three of them wanted to investigate. So Marc Meredith says they picked an initiative from the 2000 election in Arizona.

Mr. MEREDITH: It was Proposition 301, and it proposed raising the sales tax from, I believe, five percent to 5.6 percent with the additional revenue going to help fund public schools.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They got all kinds of data from the state about the votes and polling places, then they crunched the numbers. And Meredith says they found a small but real effect.

Mr. SMITH: People who were assigned to vote in a school versus another type of polling location were a little less than one percentage point more likely to vote in favor of the initiative raising the sales taxes to support schools.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The result is reported in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And the researchers also did some controlled experiments. They randomly showed people pictures of schools or generic buildings, then later had them vote on pretend ballots. Again, exposure to schools meant more support for education funding, and exposure to churches meant less support for funding stem cell research.

Other scientists who study voting behavior are intrigued. John McNulty is a political scientist at Binghamton University in New York. He's personally voted in churches, lobbies of apartment buildings, a laundry room...

Professor JOHN MCNULTY (Political Science, Binghamton University): I remember once I voted in a car dealership.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he's heard of voting booths in supermarkets, boat marinas, private homes - basically, any spot that's convenient and free. But McNulty points out that even if locations have some influence, it probably doesn't have much practical significance.

Prof. MCNULTY: Unless an election is exceedingly close, this isn't going to matter much. And it's also only going to matter if you have a disproportionate number of polling places in churches or schools or what have you.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he says, if election officials tried to move polling places to address this issue, that might just mean different unintended consequences. Studies show that people are less likely to vote when their polling places change.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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