We all know that election results can really stress us out. But did you know that merely going to vote at a polling station is such a stressful event that it can even cause changes in the level of the “stress hormone” cortisol in our bloodstream?

This was the finding of research done during the 2009 national elections in Israel. The lead researcher of that study teamed with colleagues in the United States in a follow-up study whose results, they say, point to the need for countries everywhere to institute systems for voting at home.

They suggest that home-based elections would reduce stress and lead to higher voter turnout, ultimately benefiting democracy.

“There may be people who abstain from voting at polling stations because of the stress that voting in public causes them. For such individuals, voting from home could be a solution that will allow them to exercise their democratic right,” said Prof. Israel Waismel-Manor from the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa.

He conducted the new study jointly with Jayme Neiman, a political scientist from the University of Northern Iowa, and several researchers from the University of Nebraska. Their published report appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists set out to understand what causes the stress measured in the 2009 study: Is it the sense of civic duty and the fate of the nation weighing heavily on their decision? Is it the aspect of going out among strangers in a public place? Or is it a combination of these and possibly other factors?

Vote or go shopping

To answer this question, 137 Americans voters were recruited before the 2012 presidential election in the United States and were randomly divided into three groups.

One group voted at the polls at around 7 in the evening. The second group of volunteers filled out absentee ballots at home, a week earlier, at exactly the same hour. People in the third group, the control, were instructed to vote either by absentee ballot or in person before 3pm on Election Day, and then at 7pm they were sent to a convenience store and asked to purchase a non-food item.

 “There are people who abstain from voting due to the stress they experience when they’re inside a voting booth. If we allow them to vote from home, we can help them exercise their democratic right.”

“The idea here was to assign a behavioral task that was similar to going to the polls in the following ways: it involved leaving the home, driving to a public place in the neighborhood, seeing and interacting with other people, making a decision and perhaps being required to wait in line,” the study authors explained.

“While no activity perfectly mirrors going to the polls, we reasoned this constituted a reasonable behavioral proxy, especially as in the state where the experiment was conducted neither convenience stores nor polling places are particularly crowded or chaotic.”

All participants were asked to provide saliva samples to test the level of cortisol half an hour before and half an hour after voting or shopping.

Analyzing the samples revealed that the levels of cortisol for the people who voted from home and for those who went to the store did not change, while there was a significant increase in cortisol among those who went to vote at the polls at 7pm.

According Waismel-Manor, the findings indicate that the stressful element in voting at a polling station is not caused only by being in a public place or making an important decision, but rather the combination of these two factors.

“It is difficult to estimate how many voters we lose because of stress, but even if it is only a few percent, we should think of ways to allow them to participate. In the last elections in the United States, almost a quarter of those who voted did so by mail, and in places where such voting has been introduced, the proportion of voters has increased,” he said.

The study authors conclude that further studies are indicated to ascertain how stress affects voting.

“Among other aspects of political engagement and voting stress, responses of the neuroendocrine system may also influence voting error rates, the incidence of spoiled ballots, and the overall quality of voting decisions. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the physiology of voting decisions.”