Is Voting in Churches (or Anywhere Else) Unconstitutional?: The Polling Place Priming (PPP) Effect
43 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2010 Last revised: 10 Aug 2011
Date Written: September 16, 2010
A substantial social science literature has demonstrated the power of situational cues on behavior, decisions, choices, attitudes, and emotions. Moreover, recent findings demonstrate that the place where a citizen casts a ballot – Town Hall, a fire station, a school, a church, a library – can itself influence that citizen’s vote, by priming particular concepts, values, or ideals that nudge the voter in a particular direction. More important, that effect – what we call the Polling Place Priming Effect or the PPP Effect – nudges voters in a predictable direction – that is, it leads to a systematic, non-random bias in individuals’ decision-making. For example, school locations activate pro-education concepts and norms, and thus lead to votes supportive of education, specifically, allocating more tax dollars toward education. Voting in churches activates conservative Christian values, leading to support for conservative candidates who express such values, and activates anti-abortion norms as well.
Here we discuss the legal and policy implications of the PPP Effect, focusing on the specific question of the constitutionality of voting in churches. We then connect these findings with similar challenges to voting procedures. We suggest that both the church challenges and these other analogous disputes – and courts’ responses to these challenges – fail to fully take into account the unconscious nature of the influence on a citizen’s decision-making, and warrant a reconsideration of First Amendment and Equal Protection jurisprudence. Drawing on recent scholarship in the abortion rights context, we articulate a plausible approach to grounding such challenges that does consider that unconscious influence. We then connect our discussion with recent steps toward reducing or altogether eliminating the use of polling places, by addressing its relationship to calls for absentee or convenience voting. We close by broadening our discussion and identifying other legal and policy contexts to which the PPP Effect might be relevant, and suggesting empirical research that might address such possibilities.
Keywords: Voting rights, First Amendment, Priming, Psychology, Religion, Churches, Empirical Research
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation