During President Obama’s final State of the Union address, he called for reforms to the voting process, saying, “We’ve got to make it easier to vote, not harder. We need to modernize it for the way we live now.” Just ahead of Super Tuesday and in the midst of the presidential primaries—where we’ve already witnessed record turnout and long lines in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—it’s a good time to reconsider the president’s appeal to modernize the voting process, and review an encouraging effort to do just this. Many have questioned the burden and fairness of voter ID laws, particularly for minority voters. But even easing voter ID laws doesn’t eliminate the bias of the polling locations themselves. In fact, a score of recent studies highlight how the building where you vote—whether it’s a church or a school—can subconsciously influence which boxes you check on the ballot.
The method by which a polling location can influence someone’s decision is known as priming. Priming is a subconscious form of memory, based on identification of ideas and objects. This effect happens when external stimuli “manipulate” internal thoughts, feelings or behaviors. After becoming activated by stimuli, priming triggers these associations in our memory. For example, one study showed that a store playing traditional French or German music can prime shoppers to buy French or German products.
Most states prohibit campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place, and others ban wearing campaign buttons or t-shirts while voting. While these laws were passed to prevent voter intimidation, subtle exposure to campaign paraphernalia could result in priming. During the Nevada caucuses, some voters complained that caucus volunteers—not so subtly—were wearing Donald Drumpf paraphernalia.
But even if banning campaigning near polling sites were strictly enforced, research confirms that locations themselves can serve as contextual primes that influence specific attitudes and behaviors.