Monday, January 23, 2012

Location, location, location

From an article at The Blaze:
Polling places often include schools, churches and some other public buildings. A growing body of research states that the location of where you cast you vote could be influencing those decisions to an extent, a factor called “priming.”
A new study from Baylor University found that of those in England and the Netherlands who stopped to take a survey near a Christian church were likely to report themselves as more politically conservative and had a more negative attitude toward non-Christians, compared to those answering survey questions near a government building.
I see just a few flaws in the assumptions here:

Correlation, causation. They have demonstrated that a set of people who answer a survey in one location tend to be "conservative", and a different set of people answering the same survey tend to be more "liberal", using their own definitions of conservative and liberal. 

"Church-going" does not always mean "more conservative". Just take a look at TEC, or a number of other "main-line" denominations, which have gone to the far, far left on the political spectrum. Or, take a look at black churches, which tend to heavily support the Democratic Party even when they lean culturally conservative.

They say that visual and verbal cues in the environment influenced the results. (Funny, every time I've been to a church to cast my vote, the polls were set up in a gym-like or cafeteria-like space, not the worship space.) But as far as I see, they haven't demonstrated evidence to back their conclusion. Did they try introducing these so-called "religious visual cues" into a non-religious environment where they don't normally exist to see whether the results were affected? Or, did they try holding the survey in a church vicinity where the cues had been removed or hidden? Did they try administering a survey to people in two different environments to see whether their answers changed?
The article mentions that "The researchers conducting the surveys were careful to make sure those interviewed near churches were not expressly in the area to attend church." However, I think it's not a stretch to guess that most people stopping by a church on a random non-Sunday day of the week are probably church-goers, even if they aren't worshipping that day. Similarly, it's not a stretch to imagine that people who happen to be working in the vicinity of a government building might have some business to do with government. So, the survey by its nature has its own sort of bias. 

Now, take a look at the knee-jerk "anti-church, anti-conservative" reaction to this study demonstrated in the excerpt from the same article:
With this evidence in mind, the Boston University researchers consider the constitutionality of hosting voting booths in churches due to the “unconscious nature [...] on citizen’s decision making” and the First Amendment.
You haven't conclusively demonstrated to me that where I vote does have an influence on my decision, but you've decided that you want to influence my decision by changing where I vote. I note that there isn't any question as to the constitutionality of hosting voting booths at government facilities, which according to this same line of study, may influence voters in a pro-government way. Wouldn't that be government stacking the deck in favor of itself? It seems to me that the researchers have brought a pro-government, anti-church bias to their conclusions in this study. What would the founding fathers* say about that?

It seems to me that the wisest course is what we have now. Let the law be blind to whether or not people use a place to perform worship activities. Let polling places be determined by simple, neutral facts: Accessibility, availability, building capacity, and relatively even population distribution. (That is, more populated areas should have more polling stations, etc.)

*"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." -- George Washington