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Polling station locations can influence voters and election outcomes

By Anna Molin, Bay City News Service

July 17, 2006

STANFORD (BCN) - According to a new study by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, polling locations could affect the outcome of close elections because different settings, such as schools and churches, could encourage people to think favorably toward a ballot initiative or candidate.

In the study released today, Stanford researchers Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith and S. Christian Wheeler conclude that environmental cues at polling locations could subtly push voters to support a proposition.

"The influence of polling location on voting found in our research would be more than enough to change the outcome of a close election," Wheeler said in a statement, adding that polling location biases could play a role even in close presidential elections, like the 2000 race between President Bush and Al Gore.

Environmental cues, such as objects or places, can influence the way individuals behave, Berger said.

"Voting in a school, for example, could activate the part of a person's identity that cares about kids, or norms about taking care of the community. Similarly, voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine. Such effects may even occur outside an individual's awareness," he said.

The researchers found that people who voted in schools were more likely to support raising the state sales tax to fund education. Using data from Arizona's 2000 general election, the researchers focused on a proposition that proposed hiking up the state sales tax to increase education spending. They concluded that those who cast their ballots at schools were more likely to back the initiative, with 55 percent of voters at schools versus 53 percent of voters elsewhere supporting the proposition, even when controls were used and factors such as demographics, where voters lived and political views were ruled out.

Furthermore, voters who cast their ballots at schools did not back unrelated propositions more than those who voted elsewhere, the study's authors concluded.

Lab experiments also found that people who viewed pictures of schools or churches before voting were more inclined to support education initiatives if shown school images rather than church or generic photos.

People who viewed church images, meanwhile, were less likely to support stem cell initiatives, like California's 2004 stem cell funding proposition.

"What our research suggests is that it might be useful to further investigate influences such as polling location to better understand how such factors affect different types of voting situations," Wheeler said. "From a policy perspective, the hope is that a voting location assignment could be less arbitrary and more determined in order to avoid undue biases in the future."

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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