The day after Super Tuesday, I asked almost a dozen atheists at our weekly lunch meetup where they go to the polls when voting in person. Every last one of them said that their regular polling place is a church, but rather few of them seemed overly concerned about it. This is presumably because we (formerly Christian) apostates feel ourselves relatively immune to the subtle influences of an ecclesiastical setting, having consciously and overtly rejected the moral authority of the church. But what if there is a large class of citizens who carry no such immunity?
The Polling Place Priming (PPP) Effect, as described by Blumenthal and Turnipseed, is a measurable “systematic, non-random bias in individuals’ decision-making” which flows from a human being taking in the surroundings of the polling location itself, thereby “priming particular concepts, values, or ideals that nudge the voter in a particular direction.” The authors effectively summarize the state of the social science research into polling place effects before delving into a set of related legal issues:
Abraham Rutchick’s research examined the effect on voter decisions of voting in churches. Broadly speaking, the hypothesis was that voting in churches would prime relatively conservative attitudes, especially ones related to Christian values. The increased accessibility to such values would influence voters’ choices.
Rutchick’s real-world and laboratory studies supported this hypothesis. In two studies similar to the Arizona ballot initiative study described above, Rutchick looked at 2004 general election voting patterns in South Carolina’s Sixth Congressional District, where a relatively conservative Republican challenged a Democratic incumbent. The prediction, supported by precinct-level voting data, was that the conservative Republican would receive more votes when citizens voted in churches relative to when they voted in secular locations. A second, follow-up study compared support for a proposed amendment to the South Carolina Constitution that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Here, the author again compared support from church locations relative to secular locations, also controlling for additional demographic characteristics such as age, race, sex, and party affiliation. As did Berger and colleagues, Rutchick also compared the effect of voting in a church with support for a non-Christian-values-related issue, an amendment concerning the state’s eminent domain powers. Again, citizens who voted in churches supported the marriage amendment more strongly than those who voted in secular locations – which suggests that conservative, Christian values were unconsciously activated. There was no such distinction, however, for the eminent domain amendment, which implicated an issue that does involve political preferences, but that is less likely to be tied to Christian values in particular. Thus, the findings again demonstrated the focused nature of the PPP Effect.
Essentially, voting in church results in measurably more faith-based outcomes, particularly on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. This should be disconcerting to anyone who believes that Bronze Age ethical norms are unlikely to promote human thriving in the modern age.