The oval-shaped “I Voted” sticker with the billowing flag has been a staple within American voting culture for decades — so much so that even some absentee ballots include it in the envelope. While the sticker remains ubiquitous as the country’s most beloved participation trophy, many are unaware of its origins.
States and counties across the nation have strayed from the historic sticker, holding contests for original designs that better reflect their local elections. While some areas of the country are phasing out the sticker reward in an effort to save money, 14-year-old Hudson Rowan swept the Ulster County, NY, “I Voted” sticker contest with his viral spider-demon design entry, sparking a renewed interest in voter participation and voting paraphernalia all together.
“We’ve had a lot of fun this year with the sticker contest and are so proud of the positive attention it has brought to the voting process, specifically when it comes to engaging with younger voters,” Commissioner Ashley Dittus of the Ulster County Board of Elections in New York said to Hyperallergic.
It’s unclear where the first voting sticker debuted as they’ve been regionally available through local businesses and organizations post-World War II. The Miami Herald mentions the distribution of an “I Have Voted” sticker at Miami polls as early as 1950 to remind others of their civic duty, and another article from 1982 notes small businesses offering Election Day discounts and freebies for those donning the sticker in Fort Lauderdale. On the other side of the country, the Phoenix Board of Realtors claimed that they designed and distributed the first “I Voted Today” sticker for poll visitors in 1985 in an effort to get better acquainted with the community and promote voter turnout in favor of a freeway expansion query that was on the ballot that year.
The rippling flag sticker design was developed in 1987 by Janet Boudreau, election supply vendor Independent Tabulation’s (InTab) former president, in acknowledgment of the lack of public awareness of Election Day. Boudreau had the design copyrighted, and by late 1988, the stickers were available in all 50 states.
“I wanted them to see people with an ‘I Voted’ sticker and think, ‘Oh, I should do that,’” Boudreau told Time Magazine in 2016. “In terms of civil rights and people protesting against the Vietnam War, we could see populism having a huge effect. Who you’d get in office to pass or kill legislation could mean life or death for some people.”
I was expecting a much longer history of “I Voted” paraphernalia before the dawn of the oval sticker, so I consulted with Claire Jerry, a political history curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, DC, home to a collection of voting paraphernalia from the 20th century.
“The oldest Election day paraphernalia we have is from 1920, during the women’s suffrage movement,” Jerry told Hyperallergic. “We have a button with a ribbon extending down that says ‘I cast my first vote on November 2nd, 1920.’ It’s the first time women would’ve been voting nationally in the presidential election, but it mentions specifically the Republican party for which they voted because that was the party that supported suffrage.”
Boy, how times have changed …
Jerry also pointed out a voting mobilization effort from 1972, when the 26th amendment granted 18-year-old American citizens the right to vote, appeasing the demands of activists who criticized the government for lowering the military draft age from 21 to 18 without lowering the voting age accordingly. Red, white, and blue t-shirts, tank tops, bell bottoms, crossbody bags, and even clear umbrellas emblazoned with the word “VOTE” were just a few of the apparel-related attempts to encourage newly eligible voters to register and cast their ballots.
Jerry also provided an array of both humorous and serious voting bumper stickers that were circulating between the 1960s to the 1990s.
While InTab’s oval sticker reigns supreme, certain states, counties, and cities have customized their “I Voted” sticker designs to better reflect their voting populations. During the 2016 presidential election, Chicago administered tri-lingual “I Voted” wristbands instead of stickers as if casting one’s ballot granted admission to a mosh pit. To be fair, many people were punched in the face during the 2016 election season so it’s not totally outrageous to make that comparison.
When asked about the efficacy of “I Voted” stickers, Jerry wasn’t so sure about their impact on today’s voters. “I don’t think it mobilizes people to go vote anymore — I don’t know if we could ever measure if it actually had that effect,” she said.
“But I do hear parents talking about taking their children with them to vote and then sharing their sticker with their child, so I wonder if it’s a way of saying ‘let’s get future generations thinking about voting’ with something that appeals to them,’” Jerry added, echoing Commissioner Dittus’s point about generating excitement from young voters-to-be.