Can polling station location alter how people vote?

I’ve written before about how the number and location of polling stations has an impact on turnout, but what about the candidate choices people make when they are in a polling station?

A new academic study of 99 people suggests the choice of building for a polling station can have an impact on people’s political outlooks:

Polling station sign. Photo credit: nilexuk on FlickrThe location of polling stations may influence how people vote with those near churches encouraging more conservative beliefs, researchers have claimed…

A recent study has shown people are more right-wing and negative toward non-Christians than those asked in sight of government buildings.

The findings raise significant “questions about how our spaces can influence our attitudes” according to academics.

Churches and other religious buildings are among the more common locations for polling stations and could therefore affect the results of a close election.

Professor Wade Rowatt, co-author of the study said: “The important finding here is that people near a religious building reported slightly but significantly more conservative social and political attitudes than similar people near a government building.

“For example, a higher percentage of people voting in a church instead of a school might vote for a conservative candidate or proposition.”…

The study was conducted in both England and the Netherlands by researchers from Baylor University, Texas…

In Maastricht in the Netherlands, passers-by were surveyed outside the Basilica of Saint Servatius and Maastricht Town Hall and in London they were surveyed outside Westminster Abbey and Parliament.

Of course, polling stations located in or near churches are in rather less grand surroundings than the environs of Westminster Abbey which, combined with the limited scale of the research, means caution is particularly appropriate in interpreting the results. However, the idea that physical location changes people’s psychological dispositions is an increasingly common finding in such research, as with the question of what would happen if you put polling stations on the first floor…

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Election law and What do the academics say?.


  • I guess a proportion of people surveyed in the street outside a large church might actually be going to or from the church, which might mean the survey isn’t a true random sample. Similarly people surveyed outside a government building will include a greater than expected proportion of public sector government workers?

  • The alphabet has been shown to be a factor, sometimes a very significant factor, in polls with long ballot papers, as you probably know Mark. I admit that I have an interest as I am always near the bottom! I have written various letters over the years to the relevant authorities and got nowhere. Perhaps a rotating or random “top of the list” letter, as some countries use, would be an idea? The alternative strategy has been to favour Adams and Abigails.

  • So far I have never heard of a person going to vote then turning around and refusing to go into the building because it is a church hall or school etc.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Jan '12 - 12:51pm

    I fail to understand in this day and age why the polling station cannot be online at home. If we can have proper online security for bank accounts and filing tax returns I fail to see why it is not possible to achieve security for online voting that does exceed that from personal visits to the poll station. That said we do have a government that seems hell bent on reducing the number of people that are able to vote, rather than increasing them.

  • paul barker 26th Jan '12 - 1:13pm

    Surely theusual rule is that you need a minimum of 800 in each country ? The MOE on this survey will be around 15%, making any results vitually meaningless ?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Jan '12 - 2:29pm


    I would have thought that the danger of personation of a voter is probably just as great with personal voting at a polling station as it is with online banking – and if someone is caught I would have thought that correction of the abuse might be easier with the latter.

    If someone makes an error in how they vote online you would have a chance of letting them correct their error with a subsequent verification – if someone makes an error at the polling station there is no chance of correction once the paper has gone into the box. If you haven’t noticed there are already substantial numbers of spoilt ballot papers – and these increase with the more complex voting systems that your party appears to favour – allowing some electronic verification might reduce rather than increase the problem.

    As for evidence to call upon if something goes wrong – I again fail to see why electronic system might not be better in idntifying and correcting such discrepancies.

    I’m not saying that the potential for error doesn’t exist – and that different controls would be required than at present – but my guess is that the risk of error would probably be much less than the current system, especially if you take into account postal voting and errors in counting bits of paper. I can just about remember that there used to be some people who made similar arguments when bookkeeping was being mechanised – I’m afraid this is the future and we need to start thinking about how to get there.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Jan '12 - 3:43pm


    But intimidation can also occur with postal ballots and with voting in person e.g. couples going into polling booths together, people “voluntarily” showing how they voted to others. Perhaps, allowing someone a period of time after they originally voted electronically, to come forward to complain of intimidation before their votes are counted might reduce the opportunities for intimidation?

  • David Allen 26th Jan '12 - 6:51pm


    If I go into a polling station and pretend to be Bill Bloggs, I run the risk that Bill or one of his mates might happen to walk in straight afterwards. Or that he voted earlier, and so the guy on the desk asks me really awkward questions. Or that he turns up later, but then makes a heck of a fuss about not being allowed to vote, and the clerk then remembers that oddball type who came in at 07.01 a.m. and said he was Bill Bloggs. Where do I run any comparable risks if I find out Bill Bloggs’s voter ID, go into an internet cafe, and steal his vote on line?

    As to intimidation – Let’s suppose that the Laboratory party lose a crucial online byelection by ten votes. What happens when twenty people (who might, in fact, have voted Laboratory – nobody could know) come along the next day and file for intimidation, claiming that their mums wouldn’t give them dinner until they had voted Conservatory? The answer is – an online system could not cope with a provision to allow voters to complain of intimidation. The intimidators would just have to be given a free hand to intimidate, and get away with it every time (unless the neighbours actually report hearing the screams).

    Or, of course, we could accept that there are actually some things – just a few – for which the Internet is not the answer to life, the universe and everything!

  • My understanding is that Wards are political units (determined “neutrally”, in theory) and that Polling Districts are purely administrative units. The design of Polling Districts and location of polling stations is a decision of the returning officer and other election officials. It is possible that the boundaries of a Polling District might create social pressure in favour of a party (a local cluster effect, bandwagon or whatever) but it would be impossible to measure. The location of polling stations is an administrative convenience, usually one that is also convenient to voters.

    The theory comes down to whether voters are like shoppers, unconsciously influenced by immediate environment. Some political campaigners subscribe to this theory and try to get as many window posters on the approach to polling stations. And with all of the activity of polling day, we can assume that there are lots of influences, some subtle and some blunt.

    But somehow a theory based on a sample of 99 voters* proposes that the type of building used for a polling station might be significant. The size of the study, of course, means that we can’t determine whether in terms of influence a Church of England hall differs from a non-conformist one, or whether a Catholic primary school differs from a non-religious school. Perhaps voters are influenced by architectural style or building age. Who can draw any meaningful conclusions?

    * The Telegraph reports “99 individuals from 30 countries”. I am unclear whether this means “99 individuals in total drawn from 30 countries” or “99 individuals in each of 30 countries”.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 26th Jan '12 - 7:57pm

    “As to intimidation – Let’s suppose that the Laboratory party lose a crucial online byelection by ten votes. What happens when twenty people (who might, in fact, have voted Laboratory – nobody could know) come along the next day and file for intimidation, claiming that their mums wouldn’t give them dinner until they had voted Conservatory?”

    If it were on-line – and you required people to vote a few days before polling day – and the votes were only cleared to the ballot box on polling day – then they would have a few days to complain about intimidation and correct their votes. With the present system there would be nop correction mechanism.

    Re personation – never seemed to stop them in Northern Ireland by all reports – you just pick on people you know to be away/non voters etc.

    I agree that the internet is not the answer to everything – but that is really not an argument against using it as a means to increase voter participation in elections.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 27th Jan '12 - 10:20am


    Have you heard of backups or computer audits – in addition electronic systems can ask for verification so that you get a more reliable decision in the first place. Properly designed and controlled electronic systems are probably far more unlikley to put the bundles in the wrong place initially. I am not saying that there don’t have to proper controls over electronic systems – but to pretend that all manual systems are risk and error free really is far from the truth – just look at the increasing number of spoilt ballots – to say nothing of the downward trend in election turnout.

  • toryboy seems to have his coloured specs on, or his experience of traditional polling stations is from an area that needs an inspection!. a) voters should enter a polling booth alone, unless aided by the polling officer; b) spoilt ballot papers are not evidence of errors, but evidence of protest. the trend is away from voting for a smaller party as a protest towards writing a comment – all spoilt papers are seen by all the candidates.
    But back to the question, it has always seemed wrong to me, in a multi-cultural country, to put polling stations in church buildings.

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