Where You Vote Can Influence How You Vote

| Wed Jul. 19, 2006 4:07 PM PDT

Louis Menand had a memorable piece in the New Yorker a few years ago on political science's attempts to divine why undecided voters vote as they do. The picture that emerged wasn't one you'd recognize from a Civics 101 class. "'[V]ery substantial portions of the public,' [he cited a researcher as concluding] hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do." (He's not joking.) In 2000, 18 percent of voters said that they decided between Gore and Bush only in the last two weeks of the campaign, and five per cent decided the day they voted, many of them presumably based on "factors that have no discernible 'issue content' whatever."

A new research paper out of Stanford University shows that a certain kind of voter is motivated by a factor that kind of does, kind of doesn't have "issue content": the place where they vote.

A field study using Arizona's 2000 general election found that voters were more likely to support raising the state sales tax to support education if they voted in schools, as opposed to other types of polling locations. ... A voting experiment extended these findings to other initiatives (i.e. stem cells) and a case in which people were randomly assigned to different environmental [cues] (i.e. church-related, school-related or generic building images). (My italics)

This tracks with marketing research showing that supermarket shoppers, for example, are more likely to buy French (versus German) wine when French (versus German) music is playing in the store. Similarly, I presume, having to wait for hours in long lines to vote in chaotic, poorly run urban polling stations (versus, say, dropping in and out of an orderly suburban one) might influence whether or not one thinks electoral reform a good idea? In any event, the research purports to offer yet more evidence that "even in noisy, real-world environments, subtle environmental cues can influence decisions on issues of real consequence."

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