Is Sleep Deprivation Actually Voter Suppression?

Republican lawmakers have tried all kinds of ways to to suppress voting across the United States, from restrictive voter ID laws to purging voting rolls. But the easiest solution to stop people from voting might just be keeping them awake.

A recent study found that sleep deprivation makes people less likely to vote and participate in other activities that benefit society at large. The research found that our increasingly sleep-deprived society might be in danger of destroying our fragile social fabric.

“Most worries from public health officials have to do with chronic partial sleep restriction that people seem to be getting, insufficient sleep,” said economist David Dickinson, co-author of the study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

One in every three Americans don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More than 30 percent of Americans report less than six hours of sleep per night. We’re familiar with negative effects of sleep deprivation like workplace injuries, automobile accidents and increased health risks. But these new findings suggest lack of sleep also has unrealized spillover effects with a much greater impact on society.

“There are a whole lot of effects to this insufficient sleep problem in America that people haven’t really thought of before,” Dickinson said.

The study study explores “prosocial” behaviors, defined as actions that “benefit other people or society as a whole.” Voting is the prosocial behavior with perhaps the greatest impact in a democracy, but it’s far from the only one with societal impact. Donating to charity, signing petitions and community volunteering are just a few examples. Prosocial behaviors are based on trust—trust that the candidate you’re voting for or the organization you that the action will benefit more people than the individual taking it.

That’s why Dickinson and co-authors John Holbein and Jerome Schafer built on previous research which found evidence that people were less likely to trust others when they were totally sleep deprived. Those findings were based on staged money transactions in a lab, scenarios with no real world impact outside of the experiment. But Dickinson, Holbein and Schafer thought the correlation between lack of sleep and lower trust might apply on a larger scale with a variety of prosocial behaviors.

“People can see the impact of voting or donating to charity more so than fixed monetary exchanges in a laboratory setting,” Dickinson said. “This study was meant to look at more field relevant measures of prosociality, things that matter more in the real world.”

If we’re generally less trusting and more individually focused when we lack sleep, it makes sense that we’d be less likely to give our time or money when we’re sleep deprived. In theory, at least, prosocial behaviors like voting make society better. But what can really be done besides simply trying to get more sleep? Dickinson says further research is necessary to understand the adverse effects of sleep deprivation, but awareness of it as a societal problem rather than an individual one is a start. The next step could be making Election Day a national holiday, extending voting times or setting up some kind of curfew the night before. There are several ways to make voting easier and better in the United States. Maybe it starts with a good night’s sleep.