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Voting while God is watching – does having churches as polling stations sway the ballot?

October 24, 2020 in Blogs

By The Conversation

Houses of worship may be busier than usual come Election Day as Americans head to the polls rather than the pews.

A 2010 census of religious congregations identified nearly 350,000 churches, mosques, temples and other religious establishments attended by more than 150 million Americans, primarily for spiritual needs and social relationships.

But during elections, such places double as centers of civic life – serving as community polling places. In some electoral districts, houses of worship make up a significant number of all voting places, raising important issues about whether voting in a place of worship influences how people cast their ballots.

Church and state

Voting in religious spaces is nothing new.

Americans have long been casting their ballots in the same place where they or their neighbors worship. In early America, the town meeting house often served both religious and secular functions – with the same space housing prayer meetings, schooling and town business.

Although the separation of church and state has largely moved the practice of religious and secular life into separate spheres, churches have continued to house voting booths.

As urban population densities have grown – more than 500% from 1910 to 2010 – election boards have been asked to identify polling sites that are large and empty enough to accommodate voters. They also need to be accessible and rent-free. Since government buildings can rarely accommodate these needs – indeed, less than 1% of polling sites in 2018 were specifically election offices – religious leaders have often offered their buildings as polling sites as a public service.

Although no national data on religious spaces as polling places exists, this arrangement appears to be very common.

For example, 22% of polling sites for the 2020 general election in Minneapolis are houses of worship. In St. Louis, 27% of precincts vote in religious spaces and, in one ward, all eight of the polling places are churches.

Priming voters

As a scholar who studies how social situations can influence attitudes, I believe where someone votes can subtly but significantly affect how they vote.

Social scientists have long understood that physical and social context shapes the way people think, feel and behave. Without even realizing it, most of us are likely to speak more quietly when talking about the possibility of visiting a library than when discussing plans to dine at an exclusive restaurant.

Each physical setting offers cues that, at least …read more


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