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Whose House? Whose Rules? Controversy Over Sign at Church Polling Place Leads New Hanover County, NC to Set Guidelines

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[Image courtesy of mum2four]

North Carolina's recent vote on same-sex marriage has surfaced a controversy after a church being used as a New Hanover County polling place featured a sign expressing its opposition. The Star-News has more:

In a decision likely to reverberate with voters on both sides of the controversy, the three-member county Board of Elections decided to formulate a new policy requesting a good-faith agreement from private institutions used as polling places - such as churches and community organizations - to forgo using the opportunity to make a political statement concerning an issue on the ballot.

The decision was inspired by Devon Park United Methodist Church's message board, which read, "A true marriage is male and female and God," as voters streamed into the building May 8 to cast ballots on Amendment One, which redefined marriage as solely a union between one man and one woman.

After complaints - and national media coverage - the county board felt it appropriate to review its policy in order "balance voters' needs with free-speech rights and Election Day etiquette." Going forward, sites hosting polling places will be asked to refrain from expressing positions on issues on the ballot.

The issue in New Hanover was especially challenging because the sign in question violated no laws:

Officials on Friday said Devon Park's sign was legal because it stood outside the buffer zone required for electioneering. Still, it drew strong sentiments from contenders on both sides of the issue, underscoring the depth of emotion surrounding Amendment One in general.

William Pearsall, Devon Park's part-time pastor, told the StarNews in the days following the controversy that he felt surprised about the whole affair, saying the church only displayed "God's message."

While supporters argued the message board was no different from the typical electioneering signs that usually line the outside of polling places, critics said transforming an institution where voters cast ballots into a political advertisement was unethical.

This isn't just limited to New Hanover County, however; churches have long been popular sites for polling places, both because of their location and available space. Moreover, as more and more jurisdictions limit access to schools for elections because of security concerns, church buildings can end up being even more attractive as voting sites.

The choice, therefore, is tricky for election boards like New Hanover's; absent a policy, controversies like this one could become more commonplace. Too strict a policy, on the other hand, could lead churches to decide the small fee they receive (New Hanover's is $125) simply isn't worth the trouble.

Interestingly, recent research has suggested that the location of a polling place can affect voters' choices through a phenomenon called "contextual priming." A 2008 paper by Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith, and S. Christian Wheeler found that voters who cast ballots at public schools were more likely to support school funding initiatives - with the effect persisting even when controlling for voters' political views and other factors like demographics. The study suggests that similar effects could occur in the case of voting at churches but notes that more study is required. In any event, the authors suggest that even if some priming effect exists, there may be ways to mitigate the effects by limiting them in the polling environment.

While motivated more by circumstance than research, New Hanover's policy has likely stumbled onto a small but potentially effective approach to concerns about the impact that polling places can have on the outcome of a vote.


  • Reason 538 for using vote-by-mail.

  • During the 2008 Presidential Election period, I went door-to-door with PEVL cards
    that people could mail in. I was motivated by the Dem. party, but the early voting
    option is, for all voters, an opportunity to avoid some personal hassles involved with
    voting at a designated place. My wife can't walk the 1/4 mile corridor at the Tempe
    Senior Center, nor stand for 15 minutes. Yet her vote should count like all the rest.

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