More Sleep Equals More Voters

A new analysis finds voter turnout increases when an election is held two days after the switch back to standard time.
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Voters at a polling station in the 2012 presidential election. (Photo: spirit of america/Shutterstock)

Voters at a polling station in the 2012 presidential election. (Photo: spirit of america/Shutterstock)

How do we motivate more people to vote? Newly published research points to a surprising solution to this longstanding concern: Give the electorate an extra hour of sleep.

Impossible, you say? Not at all. In fact, it has happened many times over the years, with measurable results.

In the journal American Politics Research, Iowa State University political scientist Robert Urbatsch reports voter turnout goes up in years when the November election occurs just two days after the end of daylight saving time.

Urbatsch found this extra-hour-of-sleep effect using three different measures—results that suggest well-rested voters are more likely to make it to the polling station.

Democrats might enjoy a slight advantage in years when the election occurs just after a time change, and Republicans might have the edge in other election years.

The debates in Congress about extending DST focused not on elections, but rather on “trick-or-treating at Halloween,” he notes. “Yet precisely because the change did not explicitly aim to manipulate voting, it sheds a unique light on the public’s decision-making process surrounding voting.”

The first section of Urbatsch’s study looks at voting patterns in Indiana. The state made an unusually good test case: Until 2006, some of its counties spent much of the year on daylight saving time, while others stayed on standard time all year.

Focusing on the 1990s and 2000s, Urbatsch looked at the percentage of registered voters in each county who actually voted in national elections.

“Whether using overall or in-person turnout rates, recent clock shifts associate with an approximately 2.5 percentage point increase in predicted turnout,” he reports.

Part two of Urbatsch's study looked at state-level voter turnout, as a percentage of the population that is eligible to vote. Looking at elections from 1971 to 2011, he finds “having an extra hour in the day just before the election again associates with more voting,” this time by an average of 4.5 percentage points.

Finally, Urbatsch examined survey data from the American National Election Study, which asked voters whether they had cast a ballot in the most recent election. Focusing on the period from 1972 to 2008, and controlling for a variety of factors that impact the decision to vote, he again found “a clock change made just before the election associates with a higher probability of voting,” increasing it by about two percentage points.

Further analysis suggests that, unsurprisingly, “the end of Daylight Savings Time matters more for those who do not habitually vote.” It’s the marginal voters who base their decision to vote or not to vote on how tired they feel.

Given that “would-be Democratic voters’ turnout decisions are more sensitive to day-of-election factors,” these findings have implications for both political parties and election forecasters, Urbatsch writes. They suggest Democrats might enjoy a slight advantage in years when the election occurs just after a time change, and Republicans might have the edge in other election years.

Urbatsch concedes that the impact of extra sleep was relatively small (at least in two of his three studies). And this effect presumably will be less apparent as more and more people opt for vote-by-mail or early voting.

But as the cliché goes, elections are won at the margins, and if an extra hour of sleep gives people more time or energy, it follows that turnout will increase. After all, when a would-be voter feels exhausted, the choice between heading to the polls and hitting the snooze alarm can easily go either way.

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