One simple pleasure unites voters from across the political spectrum on Election Day: the ubiquitous “I Voted” sticker. It’s what allows you to tell the world, without ever opening your mouth, that you practiced your civic duty. It sends a slightly judgmental message to those who didn’t, and it gives you the perfect excuse to take a selfie on an otherwise dull Tuesday. The mysterious history of the “I Voted” Election Day sticker points to just how beloved the ritual has become.
Exactly who came up with the idea is a hotly contested question, but the stickers first emerged sometime in the 1980s. Though the Phoenix Realtors Association (PRA) claims to have dreamed up an “I Voted Today” sticker in 1985, a Miami Herald article published in 1982 says Fort Lauderdale businesses gave a discount to customers donning an “I Voted” sticker, according to TIME magazine.
“We were absolutely the first ones in the country,” said Skip Rimsza, the PRA president who later served as the mayor of Phoenix, in a 2006 article published in The Arizona Republic. “Back in 1985-’86, I went to the national Realtors convention, [and] no one had heard of any stickers in their communities.”
The PRA’s “I Voted Today” sticker was invented “as a visible reminder to vote with the intent of increasing afternoon and evening voter turnout,” according to a fact sheet PRA provided Bustle.
A few years later, the election supply company Intab released the classic “I Voted” sticker that features an American flag. Janet Boudreau, the former Intab exec credited with the design, told TIME magazine in 2016 that she hoped the stickers would remind people that it’s Election Day so they could get to the polls.
Studies show that holding “non-partisan election festivals” increases voter turnout and that thanking voters for casting a ballot boosts participation in later elections. This suggests that the power of “I Voted” stickers can be attributed to turning the act of voting into more of a communal activity and making voters feel appreciated.
“Before, the folks that you knew in your neighborhood would know that you voted, and voting was an occasion. And now many of us can’t vote, or can’t take time off, or if we do, [we] don’t necessarily see the folks that we want to engage with,” Celina Su, political science professor at the City University of New York, tells Bustle. “So the sticker, and then also publicizing you wearing the sticker online, sort of does that in a new way.”
Though the sticker’s origin story remains muddled, they don’t appear out of thin air. In fact, Mic estimated in 2012 that providing every eligible voter with a sticker would cost the government over $34 million each election, a price tag that falls on the backs of state and local governments.
Yet Su predicts that the sticker will only rise in popularity as states purge voters from their rolls, attempt to freeze black voters’ registration applications, and require voters to show proof of a “current residential street address” in order to vote. While they started out as a way to get people to the polls, they may have already begun to morph into a subtle form of protest.
“When we feel like this right is in danger,” Su says, “any signal to exercise that right means a lot more.”