Election Day experiences have changed dramatically since the early history of voting in America, and it turns out that those “I Voted” stickers help illustrate this story.
Today, many voters share the experience of walking into a school gymnasium or church and waiting quietly in line to vote and then leave. However, this subdued atmosphere has not always prevailed.
Back in the day, going to vote was a pretty lively, communal affair. And with the help of those stickers, that could be making a bit of a comeback.
According to Time, the stickers were created in the early 1980s as a response to low voter turnout in elections in the 1970s.
“An Oct. 29, 1982, Miami Herald article may contain the earliest mention of such a sticker, in a discussion of how small businesses in Fort Lauderdale were offering discounts to customers wearing ‘I Voted’ stickers,” the magazine said.
In 1987, Janet Boudreau, who was head of Intab, a company that makes election-related products, designed a version of the sticker that features an American flag blowing in the wind.
Boudreau told Time that she wanted to do something to raise awareness about Election Day after she realized how many people were unaware of it.
“I wanted them to see people with an ‘I Voted’ sticker and think, ‘Oh, I should do that,'” she said.
Today, the stickers help serve as a social reminder to go out and vote.
Richard Bensel, a professor at Cornell University who has written about voting in the 19th century, told Time that voting used to be a very public affair.
In the 19th century, voters had to go to the polling place, get ballots from party agents, fill them out and give them to an election judge, who would transfer them to a voting box.
Anyone there might see who voted and, because some of the tickets were color-coded, for whom they voted.
“An ‘I Voted’ sticker wouldn’t have meant as much,” Bensel says. “You were voting in public, so everyone who was relevant, who would care, would see you vote.”
This social aspect made Election Day a festive affair. Philip Klinkner, a professor of government at New York’s Hamilton College, told Time that “it was the state fair and the Fourth of July and the Christmas Day all wrapped up into one.”
Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told Time that people would mark the occasion by getting all dressed up, with men growing out beards to show they were old enough to vote.
In fact, voting was such a celebration that liquor was sometimes present at the polling stations, further encouraging voters’ carousing.
The late 19th century saw the introduction of the secret ballot, which helped safeguard people from being coerced into voting one way or another. However, this also led to voting becoming a more sedate, solitary activity.
According to Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia University, this element played a part in lowering the voter turnout rates of the 20th century.
“(Voter turnout) rebounded after World War II, sagged during the 1970s, and it has rebounded in the last four elections in part because both parties have gotten better at mobilizing voters,” Green told Time.
He said the razor-thin margin of the George W. Bush vs. Al Gore presidential race in 2000 “dramatized the importance of every vote.” This may be why “I Voted” stickers are seen more often now than in the past, as the community incentive to vote has been revitalized.
Green also co-authored a study that found that taking the view of Election Day as a community holiday can increase voter turnout. According to Time, the study looked at 14 different cities and towns where “Election Day festivals” were held. Green concluded that “if you can get people to the parties, you can get them to vote.”
That said, the blanket admonishment to all eligible Americans that they must vote isn’t necessarily a great thing. What should be encouraged first is to be informed about the issues at stake in the elections and to get good information about what candidates really stand for.
Engagement is really the key is bringing the country together to take part in democracy. And sometimes engagement means showing off an “I Voted” sticker.
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