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Point of view: Keep religious bias out of the voting process

Tim Ward
Tim Ward

For years, it has been acceptable to have polling places in churches. For many rural areas, this is the best choice due to lack of options. For suburban areas, however, there are other options.

Normally, the response I have received in raising this issue is that it's easier to keep things the way they are now. With a little research, I found my polling location is actually not in my district, which is a violation of the state law.

Where we vote makes a difference. Various academic research demonstrates this effect known as "priming." It’s why the advertising industry exists. For example, when voting in schools, people are likely to vote for higher taxes for education. When voting in churches, people are more likely to oppose stem cell research. Neutral sites should be the standard and not the exception.

Churches have recently been shown to abuse their tax-exempt status by signaling the public who they favor. Across the country, churches exploit their location to promote their church or causes by posting materials or handing out literature. While the laws are clear, some churches ignore them and leave bibles and other paraphernalia in voting areas. Church displays and the latin cross could also cause people to have a subconscious response in their voting as well. Unfortunately, courts have not made a definitive decision on this.

People should have the freedom to perform their civic duty in a secular voting location. The counties of Oklahoma owe it to the people to make voting fair and equal without any chances of bias. Cities have the locations but fail in accommodating the entire population. The normal response is voters who are uncomfortable may use an absentee ballot. This misses the point that voting is supposed to be open to everyone.

“Nones” — those who don't identify with a religion — have surged in this country from 18% in 2014 to 27% in 2018 and are a formidable voting block. Should the absentee ballots be offered to the religious voters instead? Nones are also younger and are the fastest-growing religious identification. As the older religious people die out, nones take their place as new voters. The more secular "we the people" become, the less religious sensibilities are a concern.

Politicians should take note as well as the board of elections in every county across the country and here in Oklahoma. Politicians have started taking note of this trend. Religious pandering will become less of a trend. Our polling places should reflect the changing environment as well.

Ward, of Moore, is Oklahoma state director for American Athiests.