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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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.

My Take: Charting Bible’s ‘GOP’ words

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. Harvey Rabbit

    Goodbye Mitt. Your 15 minutes are over, and they weren't that much fun.

    And soon, we won't hear much of anything about Mormons either.

    November 7, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  2. Robert

    Cat apult,

    Got you on your viewpoint of churches, adult book stores, and Liquor stores. I go one further...strip joints. So let me surmise, go to church, hit the bookstore, then buy a bottle, and hit the club. Vote in a church to ban the bookstore, make a place go dry, and shut down the club..let those places open in the next county!! Oh my!! These Southern Baptist really know how to live?? NOT!!

    November 7, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  3. Robert

    The writer completely ignores the reality of voting in a church...that is that a religious person thinks they feel the eye of God looking over their shoulder while they vote in a Church.

    November 7, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  4. Pyroman

    In canada, we vote in community centers, schools, even condominium towers. I used to live in a 3-tower condo building, and we had our own poll. Voting basicaly is done from noon until around 8 pm. Results are in by 10 PM or so. Paper ballots.
    No muss, no fuss, and no fraudulent voting machines.

    November 7, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Athy

      How is a voting machine fraudulent and paper ballots not?

      November 7, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  5. wanderingstorm

    Where would you like the polling place to be? Churches have large areas (fellowship halls, I think they're called – at least in the church I went to as a kid) that are ideal for polling places, the church is "closed" on a Tuesday so no business is interrupted, and there's no electioneering allowed. The clergy wasn't standing around like vultures watching us vote and calling us heathens or demons. The majority of election judges and volunteers aren't going to be members of the church in question. What's the alternative? There are few places big enough, safe enough, and out of the way enough to work. Most other locations aren't going to want the polling places there, disrupting the business day. This is an issue of convenience, not church v state. I didn't shrivel up and start foaming at the mouth because I entered a church that wasn't of my faith this morning when I voted. No one tried to convert me while I was there. Instead I pulled into a parking lot where people weren't vying for space with store customers, walked into a clean, well lit building that was warm and safe (and smelled like cookies I might add) voted without feeling crammed into a small booth, and then handled over my ballot. I'd rather I vote in a church than the Walmart parking lot.

    November 7, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • tffl

      There are no schools where you live? Walmart parking lots are generally not the only alternative to using churches.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:31 am |
  6. Steve

    Separate church from state! There is no justification whatsoever to put a voting system in a church. That creates an illusion at least of the government preferring one religion over another. I'm an atheist and while I don't have a problem entering a church, it is not a place I would want to go vote, knowing the church crazies are all probably there trying to force their mindless nazi campaign on everyone.

    November 7, 2012 at 12:34 am |
    • Dianna Campbell

      Get over it! It's all semantics! Its a place to vote that is convenient, it works and the people are nice. The purpose of your visit there is to vote... not worship. It's a building. A room., a bathroom. Good grief! Do your business and move on.That's all it is.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      They may be nice but they're delusional. No needs to coddle them or put money in their pockets. In short, fuck 'em!

      November 7, 2012 at 1:21 am |
  7. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    All of these houses of "worthless worship" should be voluntarily converted to recreation facilities, polling places, parks and/or parking lots.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
  8. Faceplant for the Prayer Troll!!!

    Even Fox News has called Obama the winner.


    Good Christian Mourdock lost. PRAYER DIDN'T WORK!!!!!

    Good Christian Akin lost. PRAYER DIDN'T WORK!!!!!!

    No Republican Senate. PRAYER DIDN'T WORK!!!!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Reality

      But still a Republican House and therefore four more years of not getting anything done.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • sugar

      @ Reality: I am hoping against hope that people WATCH this time and write to protest when their representative is foot dragging, double speaking or otherwise not doing their dang job.

      What say you? Is it possible to get a public outcry?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  9. Lindy

    Yeah, because hundreds of random people tromping through elementary schools, that's totally safe. Or maybe our teeny tiny little satellite Library maybe like 2 or 3 people could vote at once there. I could get behind a secular space being the preferred polling place if it is practical in a precinct, but in many communities a church is really the only practical place to deal with that many people for that long a time. Having fewer and more spread out polling places is a completely stupid idea.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • End Religion

      hundreds of random people tramping through the school is exactly what happens every day during the school year. You're just looking for some reason to keep it in the church. Dig your head up out of the sand and use it.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • sugar

      Thank you. I completely agree. If someone is sheep minded enough to let the polling place decide their vote they probably shouldn't be entrusted with a vote to start. Sad that this is the sort of thing people fear!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Yeah

      So you would be okay with voting at a Planned Parenthood office, or a mosque? All good to you?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • sugar

      I'd vote in a pay toilet if it meant my vote was counted. I'm rather extraordinary, though. I have well defined opinions borne of years spent reading and learning. If a sign on a wall swayed me that hard it would be my personal duty to stick a gun in my mouth. Or ship myself out for sheering. Whichever.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Rollo Tomasi

      If a sign on the wall said "Danger! Severe Radioactive Contamination! Leave Immediately!"

      Would you be swayed? And put don't suck that Glock when you say yes . . .

      November 7, 2012 at 12:20 am |
  10. Kelly

    I can understand this perspective, however I have also seen many people objecting to schools being used as polling places for security reasons (think pedophiles). I also think the same level of influence exists when you go to vote for a ballot measure such as city bonds to improve libraries, schools, etc. It makes sense but in most cases that I have personally seen, the churches were merely providing a civic service that was needed. Not saying that others don't push agendas...and those should be shut down. Otherwise, it is an interesting idea to know what level of influence it does play and how we could find a truly neutral site...maybe a gas station on the corner.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • End Religion

      Are children not off school on election day in your state?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • sugar

      They aren't off in Pennsylvania. I suspect they aren't off in most states.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • End Religion

      That explains the hesitancy of using a school then. In my state, Maryland, kids have off school on election day. But aside from that there seem to be a lot of Ruritan clubs and that sort of thing, that even though those seem to be Republican in my area, it still doesn't seem as obviously wrong for voting as does a church.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • sugar

      @ E.R. : Yeah, it's weird in some places. Like my area churches are pretty much the only thing big enough, open enough and warm enough to put that many people. Now, in my old neighborhood we did vote at an elementary school but that was pre 9/11 so... yeah... that whole thing. I guess someone somewhere decided churches were more expendable than schools which makes sense. I mean compared to houses of worship, how many schools can afford to rebuild themselves? (was that mean?)

      November 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  11. randy

    What about the school in PA that election officials placed voting machines near a mural of Obama. A judge ordered them covered, but only 3 large postors coverning his face, but not his body or his 2008 slogan and words. That is not right. At the church I voted in today, I saw no Christian pictures, symbols (except on the church sign) around. I say no social issue postors. Barry Lynn is a radical who wants all Christian displays removed from public view.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • End Religion

      randy if you think voting under an Obama poster is unacceptable but voting in a church is A-OK, no amount of common sense can be expected from you.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  12. dwech

    Good article, and nice to see it coming from a man of the cloth who isn't afraid to call bias what it is. Churches have a place in society, and so do polling places - just not in the same place.

    A sampling of countries who have not separated 'church from state': Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, countries in most of Northern Africa... Why would we want to join this bunch?

    November 6, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  13. Amanda 14

    Voting is supposed to be private. There should not be a difference of where the vote is cast.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • Yeah

      Then well let you vote in Uncle Ernie's Porn Palace. It doesn't matter, does it?

      November 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
    • Athy


      November 7, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • wanderingstorm

      Amen, Amanda.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  14. nothing new here

    I would not worry too much about this matter –
    Organized religion no longer has the influence it once had. It is estimated that up to 70% of churches will be closed, or in serious decline in the next 20 years. So this problem will not be a problem in the future – we just need to keep moving forward.

    November 6, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  15. Geoff

    I am religious, and I agree – it would be better to not use churches. Yes, it can be seen as whining – but that doesn't mean there can't be more of an effort to be balanced and neutral. My local polling place is at a church. In previous years it was at least in the lobby or social hall area. This year there was no messing around – it was a church. There are plenty of schools around, or even gas stations or coffee shops.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • End Religion

      You are a credit to your group. Why ask blacks to vote in a Klan clubhouse? Why ask jews to vote in a crematorium? Why ask the non-religious to vote in a church? Makes no sense unless of course churches want the (sometimes not so) subtle influence - of course they do! It's just plain wrong, especially for a government that expressly goes out of its way to form the government around the idea that churches need to stay out of government business.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Athy

      If you're influenced by where you vote, you shouldn't be voting.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • End Religion

      Wrong. It is the first and most essential right of this republic. There shouldn't be any pressure either way, or attempted suppression of that freedom. It is not a requirement that one be smart or unaffected by social pressures in order to vote. While it may seem a bit pathetic if one is affected by external pressures, there's zero reason to expect someone to suffer it at a voting site.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Athy, bullsh!t!! I should not have to enter a House of Stupidity, with crosses and mythological beings nailed to them on the wall to exercise my right to vote. There are plenty of neutral, and government owners facilities, that could and should be used before coddling the cults.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:37 am |
    • Athy

      It's bullshit. And my statement stands. If a church is the only (or most convenient) place for you to vote, then that's where you vote. Just fill out your sample ballot and copy it in the voting booth. Is that concept too complex for you?

      November 7, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • End Religion

      athy, your statement stands incorrect.

      November 7, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • wanderingstorm

      By all means, use a school. Disrupt the school day. Expect gas stations and coffee shops (apparently where you live they have huge open spaces inside) to disrupt their business day.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:00 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      I put a church in the same category as a motorcycle biker's clubhouse. I would never enter one and hate entering a fucking religious cult's clubhouse, especially if they are being paid for the use of their House of Stupidity. That being said, I do cast my vote at the location I must, but I always register a complaint with the election folks.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • Jeffrey R.

      As a business owner, I would LOVE to haave my place be a polling location. Long lines? "We have some excellent espresso and coffee, and the baked goods are freshly baked by our master chef. Have a free sample! I'm sorry you have to wait, but if there is anything you want, please let us know."

      Yeah, hundreds of new potential customers walking into my place, all who live nearby, giving my staff a chance to charm them and free sample them . . . what a bad idea that is! The cost of the extra staff and samples would be cheaper than advertising, and far more effective.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:11 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      And using a public school gymnasium for a couple of days is not a significant disruption. I've seen it done and it was no big deal. And it can be very instructional to the students.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • End Religion

      Maryland schools get election day off. Yes, it disrupts one day. But Maryland schools were just voted best in the country for the 4th year so I don't think that one day off is causing the disruption you envision.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:21 am |
    • Athy

      I certainly agree that churches shouldn't be used to host voting facilities. Bu in some cases there may be no other choice. So, in my opinion, the right to vote should trump the distaste (insert other noun as you will) of using a church. Just make sure it doesn't unduly influence voters.

      November 7, 2012 at 1:25 am |
  16. And Now, The Early Returns on the "Does Prayer Work" Test!

    Okay, so despite getting the majority of prayer, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are going down, and Scott Brown is not looking good. When it comes to making Jesus a Senator, prayer isn't working so far.

    The early Presidential returns are so far going exactly as predicted, meaning that all that Romney prayer did not work.

    We will give updates as they happen . . .

    November 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  17. bob

    This country is degreasing into medieval times, are they going to start burning people for saying the world is round next ?

    November 6, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • End Religion

      let's see if Bob floats. I mean his name is "bob". If he doesn't float, he must be a witch!

      November 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • sugar

      Oh geez. Let's hope not... all those poor airline pilots!

      End Religion, did you dress him up like this? Well?!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • End Religion

      No I didn't dress him up!
      Well, I did add the nose. But just that, and I think Truth Be Told might have made him wear the pointy hat. Possibly. But other than that, and it isn't much, I did not dress him up. How dare you insinuate such a thing!

      November 7, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  18. Army

    When you go with the Sheeple, and Eloi of this Country,,, SOON you will wish ta God you had kept your morals and principles!!! Like this Liberal talk show host constantly degrading the opposition. Does she seriously think that any decent honorable person would take the word of a carpet Munchin J.A.P ???

    November 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • H.G.W.

      So if Democrats are Eloi, then you Right-Wingers are Morlocks? Man-eating ape-like degenerated humans who cannot stand the light?

      You know, I never thought of it that way, but you are right!

      Thanks for sharing.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
    • Bet

      "a carpet Munchin J.A.P

      Some mighty bigoted, hateful words from a typical uneducated religious nut job.

      November 6, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  19. dan

    Idiotic article. If you can't muster up the nerve to vote in a church building, too bad. Stay home or vote absentee. What a bunch of bedwetters.

    November 6, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Way to completely miss the point.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • End Religion

      only wet beds tonight will be all the repubs crying over the massive losses tonight.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Maya

      The religious need to learn that they must follow the same rules as everyone else. If they want the government to stay out of their business, they need to stay out of the government's business. I'm tired of whiny Christian BS.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • dan

      Sorry Tom-I didn't "miss" a thing. Did you not read the article? "the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols..".

      Maybe they should call ahead and ask what decor I'd prefer so I'm as comfortable as possible.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • dan


      Rev. Lynn's the whiner here, isn't he?

      November 6, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      I like the use of the word "cleansed" – as in make healthy and remove all the Babble Nutter Bullsh!t ornaments of mythological beings.

      November 7, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  20. End Religion

    Church-goers should be forced to vote in bath houses and sex shops, right beside the dildo aisle.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Cat Apult

      Okay, when I was in the South, I was always amazed at the number of times that, if I saw an "adult" store, it was right next to a church and a liquor store. That must be the Holy Trinity of Southern existence.

      November 6, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • sugar

      @ C.A. : Hahaha, I noticed that, too! They also never heard of hard pretzels or tastykakes which speaks to me of their inherently dangerous food-i-tudes. I mean who doesn't like tastykakes?

      November 7, 2012 at 12:03 am |
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About this blog

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.