Where we vote affects how we vote. So where should we vote?

According to a summary article by Ben Pryor in The Conversation/Scientific American, people’s votes are affected by the voting location. Voting in a church “prime[s] significantly higher conservative attitudes—and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians.” On the other hand, “individuals voting in Arizona schools were more likely to support a ballot measure that increased the state’s sale tax to finance education.”

Pryor draws the conclusion that we should vote by mail–which, for most people, would mean voting at home. One objection is that home isn’t a neutral place. It will bring its own biases. I don’t know whether voting at home has been experimentally compared to voting at (say) a school, but let’s imagine that being home makes people more resistant to taxes. Why is that the most authentic, or most rational, or most autonomous perspective? To prefer the home seems to assume a rather contentious view of the relation between the public and private sphere. In political theorists’ terms, it’s a hyper-liberal view as opposed to a republican or communitarian one. Arguably, you should vote where you are primed to think about other people.

But isn’t it problematic that a church, for instance–with all the deliberate persuasive power of its iconography and architecture–should be the required context for voting in a secular republic? Well, maybe. But I don’t accept the view that citizens can be or should be disembodied and culture-free. The Progressive movement that achieved the secret ballot envisioned the ideal voter as a rational calculator of best interests (either his own interests or the nation’s). Progressive voting reforms were probably helpful, on the whole, but the guiding ideal seems both naive and a little unattractive. What, after all, is in our interests once we strip away values and group-memberships?

The opposite view–just for the sake of argument–is that we construct communities that are redolent of values. That’s why they are full of religious buildings, public structures with inscriptions and allusive architectural styles, businesses that promise various versions of the good life, and even natural spaces that we interpret as having moral significance. Communities govern themselves by making decisions, and a vote is one important moment for decision-making. Each person’s vote is profoundly influenced by the community context. Yet individuals push back. While the average voter may be influenced in a conservative direction by voting in a church, some are probably alienated by the context and pushed in the opposite way.

On every day, not just on Election Day, the community changes as people build, alter, and decorate its physical spaces and communicate in more ephemeral ways. For instance, the church in which a polling place may be located was built by people who wanted to change  local values and commitments. They were not satisfied with whatever religious structures and institutions already existed, but chose to make a new one. That was part of an endless process of community-formation. The material with which we reason and choose is given to us by the community so far, but we can change it one piece at a time. The real me doesn’t emerge when I am inside the home that my family has privately decorated. I am really “me” everywhere I go, and that means that I am always being shaped by my context and often pushing back.

See also: on voting by mail and voting and punishment: Foucault, biopower, and modern elections.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.