For Margaret Steenson, voting was an event: At her polling place, she filled in the circles, slid the ballot into the machine and then, like her neighbors, signed a wall. Afterward, she got her little oval with the red, white and blue flag, the badge of honor that proudly read “I voted.”
“It shows that I’m involved, and it reminds other people to vote,” Steenson told this reporter while trapped in line for the Wet Buns food truck in Occidental Park on a Friday afternoon.
It’s a symbol, an emblem. It marks you as a voter, a person who beat the odds and showed up when millions won’t. You wear it with pride until the patriotic adhesive ages and eventually fails, arching an eyebrow at the people who pass you that Tuesday who aren’t part of the club.
Let’s be honest, I still have my sticker from 2008, the first general election I could vote in. It was pasted onto an old laptop and is probably sitting there alongside my third generation iPod and other terrifying reminders of what terrible taste I had in my early 20s.
But here in Washington, we don’t have this option anymore. The state converted entirely to vote-by-mail in 2011, making stickers a thing of the past gone too soon, like dodos and pogs.
The stickers are still out there. According to Washington’s Secretary of State’s office they’re the most popular product on the election market. Rumors abound as to where you might be able to encounter one: Are they at drop off boxes? Get out the vote events?
Scarcity breeds innovation. Much like Prada bags, knockoffs abound. You’ll find one on the cover of this newspaper, but I must disclose we were not the first.
In 2012, The Seattle Times partnered with Bartell Drugs to put out a promotional sticker with the newspaper on the day of the presidential election. The idea was to make voting visible, pushing it into the limelight, said China Davis, Seattle Times spokesperson.
“Because Washington collects voter ballots by mail, we wanted to give our readers a glimpse of the designated polling location experience, where the quintessential little old lady behind the table gives you an “I Voted” sticker,” Davis said.
King County will dive into the fray this year with a perforated addition to the vote-by-mail ballot. Officials looked into the possibility of continuing the sticky practice, but abandoned the notion when they realized it would cost $30,000 to produce enough stickers for the roughly one million registered voters said Nancy Standifer, spokesperson for the King County Elections Office.
Los Angeles County just gave up and promised everyone what they really wanted. Voters in the Southern California metropolis will get their “I Voted” stickers this year.
So what is it about these stickers that inspires such desire? And why are officials so desperate to disseminate them?
That seemed like a straightforward question in an innocent, happy-go-lucky story about a Rockwellian tradition of days gone by. It turned out that I was throwing myself down a rabbit hole of mass experimentation, social psychology and behavioral economics from which it would be hard to escape.
Because that love of the sticker, it’s rooted in something deeper, something that organizations will manipulate to make sure that you get to a polling place.
A 2012 article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic posits that people just enjoy being perceived as a voter. Using an influential study on voting habits of Swiss people after they shifted to mail-in ballots, Thompson concluded that people do not just enjoy being seen voting, but being seen with evidence of voting, period.
Moreover, most people don’t like being viewed as a “nonvoter.”
That’s backed up in a study by researchers from Yale and the University of Northern Iowa showed that receiving a mailer that promised to “out” a person’s voting record to their neighbors cause a statistically significant shift in voting practices.
“Substantially higher turnout was observed among those who received mailings promising to publicize their turnout to their household or their neighbors,” the paper reads. “These findings demonstrate the profound importance of social pressure as an inducement to political participation.”
This propensity of ours to want to prove our superiority as voters got noticed.
Facebook, a company second only to our Google-y overlord in terms of the amount of personal information we offer up on the altar of connectivity, conducted a study on 61 million American users during the 2010 midterm election.
The social media site gave users the option to post a digital sticker that declared them a voter. The exact content of the sticker differed and whether or not users were prompted to then see the voting status of their friends varied as well.
Facebook handed the data over to researchers at the University of California San Diego who concluded that the experiment prompted 340,000 people to vote who might otherwise have sat on the sidelines. Admittedly, that’s about .14 percent of the voting-age population from the 2010 census, but may account for a significant portion of the .6 percent increase in voter participation between 2006 and 2010.
“The results of this study may have many implications,” the authors write. “First and foremost, online political mobilization works.”
The Washington Secretary of State’s office certainly thinks so.
They offer a digital “sticker” that allows a person to demonstrate their voter status on social media quickly and easily. It was created as part of the outreach for the 2012 presidential election, said Stuart Holmes, the state’s election information systems supervisor.
Of course, easy access to the “I Voted” sticker has its own flaws. Without those elderly gatekeepers as the arbiters of the emblem, anybody could technically pose as a voter without ever having taken the time to go to the post box.
Sticker fraud could become rampant, giving the casually unaligned, or just lazy, citizen an easy out, like telling initiative signature gatherers that they’re not from Washington.
In the end, sticker or no sticker, everyone knows what they should do: vote.
So do that, in August, in November and every election after. Because you may have an “I Voted” sticker for a day or, in my case, decade, but you’ll have the consequences of not showing up for a lifetime.