The practical benefits of churches as polling places needs to be weighed against the potential impacts on priming and exclusion when considering their suitability, and this balance may shift in an increasingly irreligious society.
Democracy is an important humanist value. I vote in person – despite knowing my political party would prefer a postal vote – because of the value I place in this secular ritual: greeting the tellers, thanking the poll staff and any volunteers as they look up your name, and of course most importantly #DogsAtPollingStations*. I’ve voted in schools, community centres, and a few churches. I generally prefer secular polling places, but it’s a weak preference informed by more interesting flyers on the noticeboard more than anything else.
* Technically this should be Dogs at polling places, as these are the buildings that host individual polling stations. But pedantry shouldn’t distract from a cute dog in a rosette.
In the 2018-20 compulsory periodic review of polling places my village ticked over some formula of population or distance to qualify for a second polling place serving its western half. A local church has been selected, but I do feel glad that I’ll continue to vote at the community centre.
There are good practical reasons for churches and other religious buildings to be selected as polling places. While guidance makes no reference to religious considerations, great emphasis is placed on size, location, accessibility and availability. Local authorities have the right to commandeer schools free of charge, however these may not be available at short notice and the use of other council owned assets such as leisure centres can mean lost income. Churches meanwhile are usually empty and happy to host polling stations, both out of genuine altruism, and in an effort to remain engaged with an increasingly secular civic life.
Over the years as a secularist activist I’ve had the occasional and varied complaint from members at the public either slightly miffed or genuinely aggrieved at having to vote in a church.
While churches using polling day to proselytise is unlikely, I’ve often seen the manipulative Alpha Course being advertised, along with other church activities being promoted. Though to be fair, I always check the community centre noticeboard when voting. The main concerns with religious polling places are priming, and exclusion.
Priming, in a political context, is the intentional or non-intentional tendency of external factors to influence our framing of and weight given to political issues. Churches’ association with political and social conservatism and tradition may subtly prime voters towards such attitudes. Part of the reason for voting on Thursdays in the UK is to reduce the impact of religious sermons on voting behaviour.
It is impossibly to have a polling pace that is entirely neutral, with no priming effect. Vote in a school and you may be subtly influenced towards parties with better records on education, a community centre may prime other civic values, vote in a pub and you may be influenced by parties’ policies on drinks tax etc. There is evidence in the US of voting in, or in sight of, churches, priming more conservative voting behaviour. Such priming may be more important in some elections than others, or even within the same category of setting. For example, voting in a local village pub may have less of a priming effect than voting in a Weatherspoon’s given the prominent Brexit views of the latter’s owner.
We should also appreciate that many find churches exclusionary and deeply discriminatory organisations. Many people are victims of religious abuse and can legitimately find it uncomfortable or even triggering to have to attend a church to exercise their democratic rights.
A final concerns is an indirect one. If churches keep being selected as polling places, does this indicate a lack of provision for secular community spaces?
There is a lot more research on the potential impact of these problems in a US context, though I was unable to find any looking at the UK. Previous FoI requests to the Electoral Commission show that any complaints of this nature are categorised in such a way that data can’t be provided. Given our extreme sensitivity to potentially inappropriate political priming at polling places, the impact of religious priming should at least be explored. We regularly hear complaints about everything from the size of tellers’ rosettes to the newspapers read and left out by poll officers – though again the Electoral Commission doesn’t appear to hold data on these.
Even if churches or other religious buildings could be shown to have a limited priming effect in previous elections, new electoral cleavages can emerge quickly. For example, UK opinion pollsters relatively recently began weighting their polls by education in an effort to improve their models in response to increasing political populism and the salience of ‘culture war’ issues. At present no major UK pollster weights their voting intention polls by religion. However, both education and religiosity are highly correlated with partisan identity and ‘culture war’ issues.
I’d also be interested in the impact of non-Christian religious polling places. Would voting in a mosque or temple prime more positive or negative associations with religious and ethnic minorities? Would Christians be more sensitive to concerns over the suitability of churches if they had to vote in another religious building, and would such sensitivity be driven by increased empathy, or by prejudice? Do religious buildings associated with more conservative, stronger or more discriminatory beliefs have a greater potential for inappropriate priming or exclusion?
We don’t know if the potential priming or exclusionary effect of religious polling places will increase, decrease or be unaffected by our continuing move towards a post-religious majority. In a less religious society fewer people may have experienced religious abuse and so see churches as less exclusionary. The declining social relevance of religious institutions may decrease any priming power, or lead to an increased association with conservatism.
The attractiveness of churches as polling places is heavily based on their availability. Religion may have declined to a sweet spot where those churches are more likely to be empty, but still maintained. Will this always be the case? The CofE – despite huge financial assets – draws heavily on public funds to maintain its churches. These may be less readily available in future, and the CofE have already controversially floated plans to abandon their parish system.
I’d like to see more research about this topic. Though I don’t think any of the major humanist or secularist organisations necessarily should or will actively campaign on or prioritise this issue, it’s fair to raise these concerns. Equally, one can treat these concerns with seriousness and sensitivity, while concluding that the practical benefits of churches as polling places win out on balance.
If you are concerned about any inappropriate behaviour at, or selection of, a religious polling place you should speak to your (acting) returning officer. You could also consider writing to the Electoral Commission, and commenting on the regular compulsory review of polling places in your electoral district. You could even ask appropriate secular locations to put themselves forward.
Personally, I would advocate a weak preference for secular polling places, combined with reporting of any serious concerns.
Thanks for reading
What do you think? Should we have a strong, weak or no preference for, or against, either secular or religious buildings as voting locations? Have you ever experienced an issue? Is this likely to be more or less of a problem as society becomes more diverse and irreligious?
Photo information: Close Up Photo of Vote stickers on People’s Fist, Mikhail Nilov