A look at the history behind those iconic ‘I Voted’ stickers

And how motivating are they, really, to get people to the polls?

Do you make sure to get your "I Voted" sticker after casting a ballot? (Pexels stock image)

Voting: It’s one of the most American things we do -- and along with it comes the peaceful transfer of power, democracy in action, and the voices of the people heard in the solemn right of civic duty.

But we know why everyone is really voting: It’s for the stickers.

They’re coveted, they’re colorful, they come in all shapes and sizes -- and quality.

They’re definitely a “flex” in a selfie. They’ve been around for decades, but why did we start using these little stickers, and where do they come from?

A brief history lesson

Those little stickers actually have roots that go all the way back to the 1800s, when voting wasn’t a secret and cities and towns threw huge parties to get people to turn out to vote.

Eligible men would grow election beards or mustaches to show off they were old enough to vote. One historian told TIME magazine, “It was the State Fair and the Fourth of July and Christmas Day, all wrapped up into one.”

“So, the rule was, you had to be a man of ordinary courage to vote, and that meant shouldering through crowds of raucous, drunk (people) and other voters who often came early, and often the night before, to, you know, stake out their claim,” said Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University.

In 2016, Green conducted a study looking at how reviving that same kind of festival atmosphere could make turnout higher.

“You would vote in public,” Green said. “You would ... typically vote with a colored ballot that (indicated) the party of your choice, and you had to set it on the public ballot box to the booze and chairs of the people around you and then stick it in. Up until that point, you’re being plied with whiskey from, you know, one or both parties.”

That’s right -- the “I voted” sticker of the 19th century was whiskey.

“You know, it was something like, about $25 worth of goods,” Green said. “The amount of booze that was consumed on Election Day was truly fabulous. In New York City, for example, apparently 90 percent of the voting locations were in saloons in the 1860s, which is part of the reason why it was difficult for Victorian-era women to get the vote -- because it was associated with drinking.”

But as the 1900s came, and reformers of both the Temperance movement and the progressives, like then-President Teddy Roosevelt, wanted to shift away from party machines and more toward elections about the issues.

And it had the side effect of turning elections into much more solemn events.

“Bit by bit, by the 1920s, everyone -- the Boy Scouts, civic leaders, everybody is promoting the fact that turnout is fallen from roughly 80 percent to under 50 percent,” Green said.

Things stayed pretty much the same until the 1980s, when we first saw those little red and blue stickers.

How effective are they?

The first mention of one was in the Miami Herald in 1982, and a few years later, The Phoenix Realtors Association started giving them out in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Then, in 1987, an election supply company in Ohio claimed it started selling their iconic stickers.

But do they really work? Does getting a sort of “sticky piece of paper” really make people want to vote?

“You know, my sense is that they, in some sense, reward people who are already highly motivated to vote,” Green said. “And the hope is that as those people swag around with their ‘I voted sticker,’ other people will be similarly motivated. So, in some sense, it all depends on whether they’re walking around with their stickers proudly displayed. If it’s a cold November and the sticker is on the sweater, but the overcoat is over the sweater, you know, it’s a zero.”

Or, is the answer that we should return to making elections fun again?

“You could have a festival on the weekend,” Green said. “You could have a concert or whatever -- the idea of bringing back brass bands (or) school bands. That was sort of a thing.”

But for now, these stickers are what we’re stuck with.


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About the Author:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.