Polling site may sway your vote, study says
The Arizona Republic (2006-08-14) Robbie Sherwood
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Polling site may sway your vote, study says
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 14, 2006 12:00 AM
Think about the place where you filled out your ballot during the last election.
When you voted for, or against, President Bush, was it in a church? Was the polling place for that big school-bond election inside the school?
It's likely that the polling site, whether it was a school, church, firehouse or some other public building, subtly but measurably influenced the decisions of scores of voters, according to a new study from Stanford University.
For example, a voter who's on the fence is more likely to vote to raise taxes for education if the polling place is at a school, concludes a trio of marketing and political science researchers from the university's Graduate School of Business in a paper released in July.
The study was based on one election in Arizona, but researchers say the results would be true in any election.
Researchers combed through the results of Arizona's 2000 general election, when, among other issues, voters approved Proposition 301. That measure increased state sales taxes to pay for teacher salary raises and other improvements to public schools.
Just over a quarter of the polling places in that election were schools. And voters in those schools were more likely to support Proposition 301 than people who voted elsewhere. The measure passed statewide with 53 percent of the vote. But support among voters in schoolhouse polling places was 55 percent.
Two percentage points may not seem like a big swing, but the findings withstood vigorous testing to control for dozens of other factors that might have influenced voter decisions, said Jonah Berger, a doctoral student in marketing who co-wrote the study. Those other factors included where voters lived, political affiliations and other demographics.
"It's a real effect," Berger, 25, said. "Two percent is not going to affect every election, but it could affect a close election. It's definitely statistically significant."
The researchers performed other tests in a lab setting where unwitting volunteers were shown pictures from various voting environments such as churches and schools, as well as generic buildings.
The "voters" then were polled on initiatives such as Arizona's Proposition 301 and California's 2004 initiative to provide state funding for stem-cell research. The subjects were less likely to support stem-cell research after seeing religious images and more likely to support school funding after seeing pictures of schools.
Jaime Molera, a Phoenix political consultant who led the campaign to pass Proposition 301, said he doesn't doubt the research. But he thinks other factors, particularly financial support from the business community for the campaign, played a key role. A previous education initiative that lacked business support had failed, Molera said.
"To be honest with you, I think the polling locations may have helped, but it helped a lot more that we had 2 million bucks to sell this thing," Molera said. "If we didn't have those resources, you could have put every polling place in a kindergarten class and it would have lost."
Associate Professor of marketing Christian Wheeler led the study, using experience he gained doing business research on how subtle environmental influences can have big influences on consumer behavior. Wheeler got the idea while standing in line at a church to cast his ballot for president in 2004.
"George Bush was strongly affiliated with Christianity and the conservative Christian movement," Wheeler said. "I thought, 'This doesn't seem neutral at all. It has to be affecting votes.' It turns out there's some truth to that idea."
Wheeler chose Arizona because election officials here keep good records and there are relatively few counties, 15, to navigate, unlike California, which has 58. But primarily the researchers wanted to test their theory against Proposition 301, an education initiative they felt might have been influenced by polling location.
Wheeler and his partners aren't saying that election officials choose polling places with an eye toward tilting an election's outcome. Polling places are typically public buildings chosen for convenience.
But Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne said the study might help her convince more school districts and church councils to allow election workers to use their buildings as polling sites.
"The hardest thing in the world to find is a polling place," Osborne said.
The Legislature passed a law two years ago that requires polling places to allow candidates to campaign on the property as long as they stay 75 feet from the polls. After that law passed, Osborne lost 100 polling places overnight because of concerns over private property rights.
"We've had to go on a massive search to find places that will welcome us," Osborne said. "We've used a car dealership and even a couple of mortuaries. But we prefer to use public buildings, and I would prefer to use all schools if I could."
Osborne did raise one question about the study, noting that nearly half of Arizona's voters now cast ballots by mail.
Wheeler said that even if people vote by mail, they still can be influenced by their home environment.
"There's no location that's truly neutral, that doesn't activate some sort of association that could influence your vote and make it different than it would be in a different location," Wheeler said.