If there’s one reliable marker of Election Day, it’s the “I Voted” sticker.
The stickers, which became ubiquitous in America during the 1980s, are now such a beloved tradition that they’re enshrined in state law in Illinois. They’re a $30 million per year business for the companies that make them. Some voters use their sticker to pay homage to famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony, placing their sticker on her grave. And polling places that don’t reliably hand them out face the wrath of voters.
The stickers are popular for a few reasons. Businesses give out free stuff or discounts on Election Day to people wearing them — although this is technically illegal. But they’re also a badge of honor with bragging rights: There’s a pride in showing your friends and coworkers that you’ve done your civic duty.
“I Voted” stickers started showing up everywhere in the 1980s
Businesses in Miami were offering discounts to customers wearing a sticker on Election Day as far back as 1982. Teachers unions offered them to members in 1984 to encourage coworkers to vote. The same year, Vice President George H. W. Bush got a sticker that said “I Voted Today — Have You?” in Houston when he cast his ballot in the presidential election in 1984, according to a report that day from the United Press International wire service.
The stickers were provided originally by local businesses or by groups like the League of Women Voters to show their commitment to civic life. (And sometimes to advertise their own businesses, too — in 1988 in Florida, SunTrust Bank added its logo to “I Voted” stickers in two counties, causing an uproar.)
By the time Americans went to the polls in 1988, the stickers were almost everywhere, although they weren’t universally beloved. In Connecticut in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least two voters wearing suede jackets sued their towns after poll workers damaged their jackets by putting a sticker on them. Some cities, including Chicago, eventually quit handing out the stickers altogether, because businesses that were also polling places were annoyed to have them stuck all over their windows after Election Day.
The stickers cost less than a penny apiece, and the costs are usually paid by local governments. Intab, a manufacturer of election supplies, sells a roll of 1,000 stickers for $7, and sells more than 30 million per year, the San Jose Mercury News reported in 2014.
Jurisdictions that don’t have stickers sometimes face their residents’ wrath. New York residents have long clamored for an “I Voted” sticker, because the city hasn’t regularly handed them out. An election law Illinois passed in 2015 included the stipulation that if a polling place offers “I Voted” stickers to some voters, it has to offer them to everyone. Even Chicago, which has held firm on not offering stickers, is now offering “I Voted” wristbands.
“I Voted” stickers can get you free stuff — even though that’s technically illegal
One reason “I Voted” stickers are perennially popular is that businesses offer discounts and freebies for people who say they’ve voted. At least, they do until they get in trouble with the law.
Giving people free stuff for voting in a federal election (any election where candidates for president or Congress are on the ballot) is illegal under a law meant to discourage corruption. The thinking is that if you give benefits to anyone who’s voted, you might end up encouraging them to vote a particular way.
Some businesses get around this by making their Election Day freebies available to everyone, whether they’re wearing a sticker or not. This year, some 7-Eleven stores are giving away free coffee; Uber and Lyft are offering free or discounted rides with promotional codes; and Zipcar is making some cars available for free.
But at least a handful of businesses haven’t gotten the memo and are continuing to reward customers for voting: Krispy Kreme, for example, is giving away free donuts to anyone wearing an “I Voted” sticker.
It’s not clear if “I Voted” stickers successfully pressure people to vote
“I Voted” stickers look different in different places. Some jurisdictions offer multiple languages; others have come up with state-themed versions. Ohio held an online contest to design one version of the sticker, and the winning design was “I [Ohio shape] voting.”
But all the designs have one thing in common: They’re meant to help you brag about voting and to silently nudge nonvoters you encounter to vote, too. Earlier stickers in the 1980s and 1990s were a little more blatant, often bearing messages like “I Voted, Have You?”
It’s not entirely clear if this kind of generalized peer pressure works. The question is particularly urgent because Election Day is a less communal activity than it used to be. Forty-two million ballots were cast in the United States before November 8 this year through early voting and absentee voting, a record high. If we’re not all going to the polls and coming home with stickers on Election Day, will that translate into less social pressure to vote?
The research is unclear at best. People don’t like to lie about having voted, but one working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May found that telling voters they’d be asked about their voting behavior after an election didn’t significantly increase turnout. Though introducing vote-by-mail in Switzerland decreased turnout, perhaps because it removed the social pressure to vote, the evidence from mail-in voting in Oregon is more mixed.
On the other hand, Facebook tested a much more personalized version of the “I Voted” sticker as part of an experiment in 2010. Most users had the option of posting the sticker on their profile and seeing a list of friends who’d also voted. Some users only got the sticker, and some got nothing.
It turns out that seeing the friend list made people more likely to click on the sticker, which brought them to a page showing information about where and how they could vote. Facebook claims that a 0.6 percent increase in turnout among users who saw both translated into 340,000 more people going to the polls.
As more people vote before Election Day or by mailing in their ballots, the future of the “I Voted” sticker might be digital. But the physical stickers are still powerfully symbolic. The graveyard in Rochester, New York, where Susan B. Anthony, a pioneer of woman’s suffrage, is buried will stay open late on Election Night — so that on a night when the first woman president could be elected, women can continue an increasingly popular tradition of leaving “I Voted” stickers on Anthony’s gravestone.