Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Some cities use them as tokens of civic pride. Others have scrapped them entirely.
In exchange for casting a ballot, millions of U.S. voters leave the polls with a lingering sense of personal satisfaction—and a sticker. The tradition’s origins are a little murky, but many of these colorful tokens of democracy are now delightfully place-specific. Georgia’s, for instance, bears a juicy peach. Ohio’s features the state’s silhouette. Lady Liberty stars on New York City’s. In Las Vegas, you get a panorama of the Las Vegas Strip, from palm trees to pyramids.
Louisiana rolled out a new sticker this year, emblazoned with an iconic image by the late painter George Rodrigue, who often depicted Louisiana-centric scenes. (The original is in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.) Secretary of State Tom Schedler hoped the sticker upgrade would drum up higher foot traffic at the polls, the AP reported last month. Some folks are already peddling them on eBay.
San Francisco’s simple design features the exclamation in a variety of languages:
While some cities imagine the stickers as canvases for local pride and brand-building, others have scrapped them entirely. (Though you can buy your own in bulk.)
Price-wise, the flimsy things can add up. Back in 2012, Mic estimated that outfitting all of the country’s eligible voters with a sticker would carry a price tag of $34 million. Chicago nixed them for a variety of reasons; for one thing, voters would slap them on various surfaces, and storeowners grumbled about having to scrape the gummy backing off. This year, the city debuted wristbands—the kind you get at a nightclub or on a boozy cruise. The election board paid $28,000 for the 1.5 million needed to adorn the wrists of all eligible voters, the Chicago Tribune reported. That works out to about 2 cents per band. Jim Allen, spokesman for the election board, told the Tribune that the bracelets could pay dividends online. “We think they're going to have big play on social media with selfies," he said.
My colleague Derek Thompson has penned a similar defense of the stickers, arguing that they offer a stamp of social capital—and might encourage people to get their butts into the voting booths. Recent research backs up the claim. A study conducted out of Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Chicago suggests that voters hit the polls with an eye toward their social standing. In the study, “people were more likely to vote if they knew they would be asked,” Fast Company reported. “Many of us vote so that we can tell everyone else we voted.”
The stickers are also a way of positioning oneself as part of a democratic history and future. There’s an election-day tradition of plastering the badges on Susan B. Anthony’s gravestone in Rochester, New York, as an homage to the suffragette’s agitation for voting rights. This year, with a female candidate on the ballot, the gesture took on a particularly poignant resonance: By 9 a.m., hundreds had queued up to add their stickers to the display.
And stickers are a way of pushing the tradition forward. As I shuffled through the line at my polling place today, I spotted some little kids accompanying their parents, sporting toothy grins and “Future Voter” stickers. Tagging along to the booths introduces these kids to the idea of being active participants in an enduring civic ritual. The stickers that remind them they did it? Those seem like a small price to pay.