A Sociological Look at the Importance of the “I Voted” Sticker in Politics

It has come to my attention that the “I Voted” sticker is one of the smallest yet mightiest inventions of my time. Although I voted early last week, I was overcome with emotion today walking around and seeing people, many of whom I had not expected to vote, wearing the sticker on their chests. On Election Day, the sticker is a ubiquitous fashion accessory, but it is so much more than that. It is the manifestation and physical result of a person exercising their civic duty and having their voice heard. I only wish more people had the “I Voted” sticker proudly plastered to their shirts.

We wear the sticker not only to influence others to vote, but to rectify a sense of self — a self who votes and cares about politics. Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley came up with the idea of the “looking glass self” — the idea that individuals form ideas of themselves based on how they think other people see them. Society and social interactions are used as “mirrors” for how we see ourselves. In creating the idea of our “self,” we imagine how other people view us, how they are judging our “self” based on interactions with us, and finally, we create an idea of ourselves based on those perceived judgments. In essence, we interpret signals of others in interacting with us to create our own perception of ourselves.

Sounds pretty heavy, right? It’s all around us. Looking at Cooley’s theory, every interaction we have shapes our perceptions. If you’re someone who cares especially about what other people think, you can probably easily identify with this. In effect, this is what the “I Voted” sticker does. When worn, the sticker sends a message to others not only that you voted, but that you likely care about politics, or care about what’s going on in the world right now. The little sticker says a lot. From that, many people will create an idea of their own selves, either wearing or not wearing the sticker, based on whether or not others who voted may think about them — if they care about politics or the world around them. It may seem small, but it makes a difference.

Why was the sticker created in the first place? The origin of the sticker is contested, although it arose sometime in the 1980s. Word on the street is that it was first created to get more people to vote later in the day, as people saw others wearing the sticker. These days, as I explain, it means lots of things, whether it be “I woke up early to beat the lines,” “I don’t care about the world around me,” (harsh but true), or “I’m getting free Frank Ocean merch because I voted.” Whaaat? There are some superficial perks to voting.

Even the way the sticker is worn sends a message. It is worn on our chests in a way that reminds me of identifying Catholics on Ash Wednesday with the black crosses on their foreheads — “Yes, I proudly identify as a [fill in the blank].” We wear it as a badge of honor perhaps for many reasons: To show others we care; to fit in with a particular social group; maybe because it goes with our color scheme. Voting is up this year by huge amounts all across the country. In Texas, voter registration is up to 15.6 million people this year — that’s 1.6 million more people registered to vote compared to the last midterm election cycle in 2014.

Whereas it might not have been before, it’s “cool” to vote, and sometimes that’s all it takes to get young people, a group who historically has low voter turnouts, to get out and vote. Think about Cooley’s ideas again from the perspective of a young adult; you see your friend, a mentor, or a celebrity wearing an “I Voted” sticker — even without saying a word, the small interaction of seeing these people with a sticker and you without one might compel a young adult (and older adults) to craft perceptions of themselves that require that they vote in order to be accepted by these people. It might sound kind of perverse, but voting is a right and (sometimes it seems) a privilege, so why not inspire others — even through the power of visual suggestion — to vote?

You might argue that the sticker doesn’t have as much meaning as it does — lots of people can vote, and do vote. Who cares? The sticker doesn’t change that, right? Wrong. There are lots of people who can vote that don’t, often from lack of interest or lack of education on the issues. On the other hand, there are lots of people who want to vote that can’t. Many incarcerated people (or people who were incarcerated in the past) can’t vote. People who don’t get time off from work to go vote often won’t be able to vote. The list goes on. Wearing a voting sticker is a privilege of being in democracy, but it’s also a right. Our democracy doesn’t exist if people don’t exercise their right to vote. As it is, we are only giving a voice to those who are able to go to the polls and vote at all.

I would argue, though, that although many wear the sticker as a badge of honor — which, giving credit where credit is due, it is — it takes more than just simply showing up to the polls. It involves making an informed decision about who you want representing you. Going to the polls and wearing the “I voted” sticker for the fun of it is better than not. But the even BETTER choice is going to the polls and voting having researched the candidates in your district and decided who best represents your viewpoints. Wearing the “I voted” sticker will feel that much sweeter, don’t you think?

Yes, the stickers cost the government millions of dollars each year to create and hand out (ouch). But if a small sticker encourages even a few people to go vote, then you might say it is worth every penny. The power of visual cues and the interpretation of self based on interactions with others around election time is incredible. So what’s the moral of the story? Go vote. Second, less important moral? People are pretty heavily influenced by even the smallest of propagandas. Wear your “I Voted” sticker proudly on your chest today and remember its impact.

Image taken from USA Today