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My Take: Stop using churches as polling places
The author says that churches that act as polling places can sway voters.
November 6th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

My Take: Stop using churches as polling places

Editor’s note: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

By Barry W. Lynn, Special to CNN

I live in Maryland, where we have a lot of controversial questions on Tuesday's ballot, including referenda on marriage equality, the rights of immigrants and the expansion of gambling.

Many churches and other houses of worship have taken stands on these issues and lots of others, which is their prerogative. Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning.

All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs. And yet today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches around the country are being pressed into service as polling places.

At Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we get a steady stream of calls about this phenomenon every election season. Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place.

Casting a ballot in a church? Tweet us about it

We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.

The American Humanist Association, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against voting in churches in Florida, cited a recent Baylor University study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that found that people in the Netherlands and England reported more conservative views to a pollster when in the vicinity of a church.

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

My Take: On Election Day, I’m proclaiming loyalty to Jesus

An earlier study by Stanford University reported a similar effect. “Voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine,” said Jonah Berger, a Stanford researcher. “Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.”

In Maryland, this might mean that an on-the-fence voter facing the marriage equality question might be pushed to vote no by something as simple as a sign or pamphlet in the church/polling place. Such material might even affect a soft voter’s candidate choices.

How is this possible? Psychologists call it “priming,” the idea that even subtle visual or verbal cues can affect human behavior.

More studies need to be done to validate and explain this phenomenon. In the meantime it would make sense to avoid using churches as polling places. Neutral sites should always be preferred.

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There are other reasons to skip casting ballots in the basilica.

I’ve talked with people who describe their unease voting on an abortion-related referendum in a Catholic church, where they may be surrounded by posters depicting abortion as a grisly holocaust. Others say they don’t want to back an abortion-rights candidate in a church that is known for anti-abortion activism.

No public library, public school or town hall would display such material next to the voting machines. No government building would have a towering cross in the voting area.

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Many of those who have contacted us about this have reported that churches will not remove this material and that pastors argue that they have a right to keep it up.

As churches become more aggressive in the political arena, the argument that they can be neutral sites for voting, a concept that has been embraced by some courts, comes up short.

I’ve even talked with atheists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who don’t want to exercise a basic constitutional right in a church. These people have nothing against Christianity; they simply don’t believe that a fundamental democratic right should hinge on their willingness to enter a church. (And yes, most of the houses of worship used as polling places are Christian churches.)

People who support using churches as polling places often point to the need to maximize the number of polling locations to increase turnout. That’s a laudable goal, but there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on using churches, like early voting and voting by mail.

Imagining the first Mormon White House

For those who prefer to show up in person on Election Day, there are plenty of schools, libraries, town halls and civic centers to meet the need for polling centers. In small towns and rural areas, well-known commercial sites would make better polling places than churches.

If there is absolutely no other option than voting in churches, I recommend that election officials make it clear to officials at the church that they must play by the same rules as every other site.

That means no politicking inside a certain zone. And the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols and political material. The voting area should be as neutral as possible.

Voting is every Americans right, some would say duty. Let’s do all we can to avoid making people feel unwelcome at the ballot box.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barry W. Lynn.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

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    Every follower of truth absolute GOD, foundation of America, feels uncomfortable entering a place negating truth absolute GOD and American consti tution, such as a Church, dungeon of hinduism, illegality, decorated with sign of hinduism, racism, cross, not belonging to America, but of hindu Lucifer, filthy self centered, secular.
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    November 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  2. Andrew

    No f@#%ing sh@#. Churches are too political AS IT IS. They've become political functionaries who rarely, if ever, deserve tax exempt status as I see a small percentage doing ANY actual good for society. Most evangelical fundamentalist are just hate groups under the banner of a dead jew who wouldn't recognize the misinterpretations of his words if he could see them.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • PushingBack

      Yes, we should tax the churches!!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      Diggin a bit deep are we? I hate to burst your bubble but, the boss wanted the hole dug down the ways and not so dang close to the food pantry! The smell alone would draw fleas.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • JFCanton

      Do you have evidence for your opinion? I imagine that even the fundamentalist megachurches that aren't old enough or rooted enough to support hospitals and such tend to do a booming business in stuff like food kitchens.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  3. jim belize

    I have voted in Loisiana all my voting live and I 've been voting since 1976. I had no idea that this situation existed. I think that it is outrageous that people are forced to vote in a church. Lawsuits should be filed in every state where this problem exists . I am an Episcopalian and I object. Further, no true house of God would lend itself to this worldly function.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  4. Shadow

    I honestly never even though much of voting in a church until I read this article. I have voted both in a church and at a library and there really wasn't much difference. I think the main advantage to using churches is that they are large places with ample parking and there are so many of them that they are in a convenient location. Schools are in session on Tuesdays so it would be inconvenient for them to try and accommodate a huge group of people and their cars. By the time people vote they should already know who and what they are voting for. Most people in the line I was standing in (in a church) had sample ballots with them or pieces of paper already filled out with their choices. I don't think anyone changed their mind when they saw a cross on the door by the entrance. Oh and I am not Christian myself but I really think the people who have an issue with voting in churches are just very uncomfortable with anything religious and are just looking for a reason to speak out.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  5. Paul

    Here is an example from today to prove the author's point: http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_21940482/at-west-st-paul-church-voting-site-run

    November 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • JFCanton

      And the point is? It's not clear whose fault it was and it was dealt with.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  6. whitepine

    I totally agree with the author. If you ever worked in marketing or advertising, you learn all these little tricks used to influence people....such as color, placement of product, specific wording, font.... thus voting in a church would and does influence people. This practice should stop.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  7. janelle

    Most school districts no longer allow their buildings to be used as polling places due to safety. They cannot have lots of people coming in and out of their buildings all day ("all visitors must report to the office" "all visitors must sign in and out").

    I have lived in 2 places where my polling place has been a church. In both instances, voting takes place in the fellowship hall. If a church is so small that the only place to vote would be the sanctuary, then it would be too small to be considered for a polling place.

    No polling place is allowed to have any electioneering, which includes any kind of pamphlets or posters inside the polling place. There is a story today about a polling place that is in a school that had to cover a mural of President Obama because it was in the room used for voting.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  8. Okie123

    Voting in the church is safer than voting in the public schools. Too many "strangers" in and out of the school while school is in session. It would be different if the kids were out of school on election day.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • taz!

      Here in Ohio are schools are closed tokeep the kids safe while voting is going on in the schools.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  9. david williams

    The author hits it on the head it himself: yes, you are a bunch of religio-phobes, haters, and silly whiners. If you have the courage of your hostile convictions, make a statement: don't vote! Thus society will be well served.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Shootmyownfood

      How awful of you – some people don't enter churches on matters of principle. Are you advocating that in order to vote, one must disregard one's own principles? By placing polling places in facilities that cause one to pause, you are effectively disenfranchising them. Shame on you!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      I choose not to vote, not because of my "hostile convictions", but for a variety of different reasons including:

      No viable candidate
      &
      Electoral College

      November 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Bet

      I don't have an issue with this, but if someone does, there are alternatives to physically going to a polling place. If you don't like your district's choice of polling place, you can vote with an absentee ballot from the comfort of your home.

      Suggesting that someone not vote at all is a pretty poor solution.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      "Suggesting that someone not vote at all is a pretty poor solution."

      Suggesting that voting for presidential office in most states matters is a complete and utter lie.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • CKKansas

      It's a great solution since his obvious goal is to prevent those who don't want to enter a church from voting. He wouldn't be able to disenfranchise them if they could just vote absentee. Truth is, could you imagine the giant fit that would be pitched if instead of a christian church they used a mosque? How would they feel if their polling place was an atheist organization headquarters and they were voted surrounded by literature denouncing them and their beliefs. Lack of empathy is becoming the norm in these discussions.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Bet

      @religion

      This blog is about whether the location of the polling place has an effect on a person's decision. If it does have an effect, then saying "Well, if you don't like it, don't vote" isn't a solution to that problem.

      Whether your vote actually matters is another issue entirely.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
  10. Samuel Johnson

    Of more relevance is that the Tea Party, who once thought they were the defenders of Democracy, are now the ones who are actively interfering with people's right to vote through their recent voting ID laws. Their reason proved totally fraudulent – searches of voter lists revealed essentially none of the ineligible voters they supposedly were after.

    But they are behind these sleazy "you can vote by phone" and other voter intimidation tricks.

    The Tea Party is now nothing more than a purveyor dirty politics and crazy extremist candidates. The Tea Party has become the worst sleaze around. Well, as they say, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • steve travis

      would you do us all a favor and put your head back up your a$$, thank you !

      November 6, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Samuel Johnson

      Thank you for recognizing that I am not the one with my head up my ass. And I can also spell "ass," unlike certain teabaggers.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  11. Mike in Philly

    what makes me uncomfortable as a voter is seeing murals of Obama at the polling place, black panthers out side polling places. How is that not voter intimidation? I sure am intimidated.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Shootmyownfood

      Are you voting at the zoo? Black panthers? If you mean the activist organization, you should capitalize the entire name.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Oz in OK

      Assuming that's REALLY going on, then you should get a picture of that stuff (you've got a camera phone, right?) and call the FBI.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • windrider2

      When was the last time you saw Black Panthers outside YOUR polling place? I'm guessing never since what you're 'reporting' was an isolated incident at a single polling place where the two Black Panthers mistakenly thought they were there to provide security. It did not spread to polling places all over Philly, much less the entire US. Please find some other Snopes Legend to hawk. I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood and voted at an evangelical church functioning as a polling place. There were no Black Panthers and no posters of Obama, I was not intimidated nor was I converted to a different voting position.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • Bet

      I'm sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther Party.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  12. Alle

    I'm an atheist, and I couldn't care less about voting in church. It will be a cold day in the non-existing hell before they sway my opinion.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Magne

      The problem is not those who bothered to learn and take a stand; it is the people with no clue at all who go to vote but really didn't bother to know what is what and who is who, and they vote anyway. They see things on the ballot they never even heard of, and all they can do is think of signs, or what Cousin Larry said.

      Sadly, these are actually the people who decide elections, the undecided (who are still undecided even after they vote). And there is a LOT of them!

      November 6, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  13. Greg Goebel

    Federal law does not and cannot prohibit churches from endorsing a candidate. It can only remove tax exempt status. Big difference. Religion is a human right, not a government allowed permission.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • religion; a way to control the weak minded

      " Religion is a human right, not a government allowed permission."

      Then pay taxes then.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Greg, son of Joseph

      The story is about using these political churches as supposedly neutral polling places.

      As far as human rights is concerned (glad you embrace Jimmy Carter's human rights tinking), there are much more important ones that religion.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • sam stone

      " Religion is a human right, not a government allowed permission."

      So is marriage, but religious folk sure seem anxious to deny gays their rights

      November 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • Shootmyownfood

      Yes, indeed, religion is a human right. However, we all have the right to worship as we choose, and when polling places are located in the houses of worship for basically ONE religion, you are removing the right of those who believe otherwise. How comfortable do you think members of the Jewish or Muslim religions are in a Christian facility? However, voting is a guaranteed government-enforced right. I do not believe I should have to enter a Christian church to vote in a secular election.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  14. rjp34652

    "Every four years the naive half who vote are encouraged to believe that if we can elect a really nice man or woman President everything will be all right. But it won't be."
    - Gore Vidal

    "We should stop going around babbling about how we're the greatest democracy on earth,
    when we're not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic."
    - Gore Vidal

    Mr. Vidal is right. The self-induced fantasies that Americans hold about themselves and their elective process is more like a dysfunctional family than a serious selection of leadership.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    November 6, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • krussell

      WOW! Your use of brand new and original ideas has really opened my eyes!
      I have never heard anything like this before.
      Too bad you had to quote someone else to express them.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Bet

      @krussell

      Perhaps you will deign to enlighten us all with your compelling, novel and original thoughts.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  15. Sara

    There should be complete separation of church and state. It is not right for people to have to vote in a church. It is fine for churches to open up, but only if it is a opion – not the only option available to vote. Be careful folks-How would you feel if you were forced to vote in a Muslim place of worship? Would you think it was no big deal then? Schools are a much more neutral place.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • RapierPoint

      Sorry, but I don't want a couple of thousand strangers walking around the school while my daughter is in class there. In order to make it work, the school would have to be out for the day or you'd have to have additional security.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Shootmyownfood

      @rapierpoint

      If school were out, i.e., no students in the facility, then why would you need extra security?

      November 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  16. Renait

    I have no problem with polling at a house of worship, provided 1) they follow the law and no election-related materials or materials intended to influence voting on any issue on the ballot are posted within 100 feet of the poll and 2) houses of worship where a cleric has publicly endorsed a candidate are excluded.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  17. Kris

    OK, I have heard ridiculous before, but this one...this one is over-the-top ridiculous! Lynn says, "We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic." Really? What are they afraid of? Maybe that stepping into a church will cause "religious cooties" to rub off on them? I can understand why they might not want to come in for worship services, but to VOTE?? Are we talking about thinking adults here? I guess not. Churches serve their communities. It is one of the many ways they live out their beliefs. I am thrilled my church has the opportunity to serve in this way.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • why2

      You are missing the point. There are other religions out there and some say that you are not to enter those other places, it is against their religion. That person must decide if their religious beliefs are more important than their right to vote. Unfair in a democracy.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Dolly

      I'm not afraid of your church I just don't trust them! Yes and religious cooties don't sit well with me. I just voted at a church and alot of whispering going on amongst the so called helpers. I over heard one woman whisper to another " I can't believe she voted for so and so" I don't want to vote where people have such religious opinions. I'm not sure my vote was registered as I had voted.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Sid Airfoil

      I too think its a bit over the top, and I've never had problems with voting in a Church (I'm an atheist). But I wonder if religious folks would feel differently if they were the 5% minority, as I am, and were required to vote in an Atheist Community Center. Or if Christians were in the minority and were required to vote in a mosque. It's a matter of context and perspective. It's easy to think there is no problem when it's OTHER people who have the problem.

      Sid

      November 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Kris

      Why2–simple...vote early through the mail or at a location where early voting is offered.

      Dolly–Um...there are no religious cooties...anywhere. I am sorry you had a bad experience while voting. It isn't like that at every church, and it is unfair to make an assumption that every church is like that one.

      November 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  18. Seattle Al

    From CNN's Matt Smith: "A judge in the heavily Democratic city of Philadelphia ordered election officials to cover a mural of President Barack Obama at one city school that was being used as a polling locations after Republicans complained the painting violated electioneering laws."

    November 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Shootmyownfood

      As far as I'm concerned, televised political advertisements should be banned on election day, unless there is not a television set within the restricted area. Who's to say whether that add blaring from the house next to the polling place isn't going to influence any voters. If it's illegal to carry a placard, than it should be illegal to advertise on television within the same proximity.

      November 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  19. Ben

    Fewer polling places, longer lines and more expensive to hold elections. Sounds like a government solution to me.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  20. MNResident

    In my precinct, we USED to vote at the county courthouse until the election that saw Jesse Ventura elected governor. So many Ventura supporters showed up at the courthouse that day to vote that it not only became chaos at the polls, but the mob scene created disrupted the usual court house business. The next election the polling place was moved to the Catholic Church across the parking lot from the courthouse because there was FIVE TIMES the space for holding the election and normal court house business was not disrupted. Sometime basic logistics trumps emotions. I have no problem voting in the Catholic Church building, and I am Lutheran......

    November 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.