Your Election Stress Is Real — And It Might Affect Turnout - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Your Election Stress Is Real — And It Might Affect Turnout

Your Election Stress Is Real — And It Might Affect Turnout

By Amitha Kalaichandran

A rolling art installation commenting on the state of politics in America sits in the road in Manhattan on November 2, 2016 in New York City.
SourceSpencer Platt/Getty


Because every vote counts.

By Amitha Kalaichandran

The author is a Munk Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.

Victor T., 52, is a full-time Uber driver in Tucson, Arizona, and among the 5 percent of American voters who remain undecided ahead of today’s election. But he doesn’t count himself among the 52 percent surveyed by the American Psychological Association who feel the election is “a somewhat significant source of stress.” He didn’t watch the last debate, choosing instead to spend time with his children. “I’m not stressed,” he says of the election. “I have things like bills and my family to be stressed out about.” 

Christina Mao is a 28-year-old corporate client manager in New York City who, unlike Victor, is feeling anxious. “With Brexit, it really shows that anything can happen — so yes, the campaigning and upcoming election has contributed to a lot of stress,” she says.

Victor’s lack of stress might be helpful when it comes to him voting today; Mao, on the other hand, may be adversely affected. Researchers have found that high levels of stress — measured objectively through salivary cortisol — can affect voting behavior, including both turnout and how people cast their ballots. They say that expanding options with things like mail-in ballots or early voting can help those who are stressed about making it to the ballot box. 

If they … feel more stressed in general, once they get to the voter booth they may be more likely to second-guess their original decision.

Israel Waismel-Manor

Victor and Christina have different options: Arizona offered early voting, but the Empire State does not. Only 37 states (and the District of Columbia) offered early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Absentee voting, meanwhile, is offered nationwide. This year, 14 states instituted new restrictions on voting, with seven specifically around early voting. Experts say these rollbacks may especially affect voters who feel stressed about this year’s election — both in terms of turnout and voter behavior. 

A 2011 Israeli study found that many voters were stressed on Election Day, especially those who voted in public forums (i.e., at polling places). In 2014, U.S. researchers looked at voting behaviors from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 primary and general elections, discovering that those with higher baseline cortisol were significantly less likely to vote on Election Day. In 2010, scientists studied how cortisol can affect voting behavior. They surveyed participants in 2010 and again in 2012 during the U.S. presidential election, obtaining salivary cortisol levels from participants who were split into three groups. One group voted in the regular fashion (at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6, 2012), another group voted absentee (from home at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30, 2012) and the third set voted earlier in the day (at 3 p.m. on Nov. 6, 2012), when cortisol levels are physiologically lower. The researchers found that voting at polls — regardless of the time of day — resulted in higher salivary cortisol levels, compared with voting at home. Stressors, they say, included going to an unfamiliar place, interacting with strangers and standing in line next to someone with different political preferences — as opposed to voting from home.

What’s worse is that cortisol can affect voting behavior. According to Israel Waismel-Manor, one of the study’s authors, high levels of cortisol can impair memory and lead to snap decisions. He points to earlier research showing how stressed bankers may be more likely to make risky trades, noting that the same applies to voting. Take the case of a voter who’s a bit unsure but leaning toward Candidate A. “If they end up waiting in a long line and feel more stressed in general, once they get to the voter booth they may be more likely to second-guess their original decision,” Waismel-Manor says. He notes how the combined stress of voting and doing so in a public space — with lines and ID checks — leads to the largest increases in cortisol. 


Kevin Smith from the University of Nebraska, another of the study’s authors, also points to how cortisol can affect voter turnout. “We know that people with higher baseline cortisol are less likely to vote, even when we control for age, sex and political preference,” he says. Both Smith and Waismel-Manor believe that expanding options like mail-in voting and early voting can help. “We’ve seen voter turnout increase in states like Washington, Oregon and Colorado, for instance, which only offer mail-in voting,” he adds.

A stressed electorate can have big implications, warns Waismel-Manor, pointing to Florida in 2000 as a cautionary tale. It was an example of a small percentage of the American electorate having a large effect on the election outcome. So “if only a small proportion of the population is stressed enough where cortisol would affect their voting behavior, on a large scale this could be significant,” he says.

In 2012, voter turnout was only 57.5 percent, translating to just 126 million voters. But more than a third of the votes — 35 percent — were cast by early voters. As of Nov. 3, 2016, more than 40 million early votes had already been cast in this year’s election. Hopefully, those of us more susceptible to election-related stress have exercised our civic duty early, and stress-free.

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