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Whether you receive an "I Voted" sticker with your ballot depends entirely on where you live. Some election officials are cautioning against dispensing stickers in person out of fears of spreading the coronavirus.
This fall, voters in Durham County, North Carolina selected the design for this year’s “I Voted” sticker: seven stars (a hallmark of the city of Durham’s flag) hovering behind a bull, with the slogan “No bull, I voted.”
The new sticker wasn’t back from the printer before the Board of Elections sent out its first round of mail-in ballots, so officials improvised. The initial batch was sent out with the winning design from the first contest, held in 2018. Subsequent ballots will be stuffed with the new one.
“I’ve never voted by mail and didn’t expect—but hoped for—a sticker,” said Amber Anderson, a Durham resident who requested an absentee ballot for the first time this fall, saying the coronavirus made her nervous to vote in person. “When I received the standard Durham flag sticker, I had mixed emotions. I was happy to have a sticker, but disappointed it wasn’t the new one.”
Durham County Elections Director Derek Bowens understood the disappointment. But the other option, he said, was worse.
“The alternative is not getting one,” he said. “I’ll let you decide which one is better.”
The “I Voted” sticker is a hallmark of American elections that began in Oklahoma in the 1970s as a way to increase voter turnout. Since then, states and cities have invited residents to design stickers, created Snapchat filters and encouraged voters to share “I Voted” selfies on social media, transforming the sticker into a must-have accessory on Election Day. It could take on even more significance this November, as voters go through extra steps to cast their ballots safely—by mail and in person—during the ongoing pandemic.
“It’s like the people who go to a concert and get the concert T-shirt. It’s a way to show you’ve been there and done that,” said Mindy Moretti, a writer and editor for Election Line, a nonpartisan site for election administration news and information. “It signifies, ‘Hi, I made the effort to get my mail-in ballot,’ or, ‘I still showed up in person to vote.’ It’s a point of pride, and I think this year, more than ever, you’re going to have people showing them off.”
That is, if they get one. Sticker decisions—from design to handout—are typically left to local boards of election, meaning a voter’s likelihood of getting a sticker, whether at the polls or in the mail, depends entirely on where they live.
“It’s very hit or miss,” Moretti said. “I do think places that have new sticker designs will do their best to get them out. Some elections officials sort of downplay the excitement that people have for these, but some of them get it, and those who get it will make the effort. They don’t want to hear the wrath of their constituents—because that does happen.”
In Louisiana, for example, officials debuted a statewide “I Voted” sticker for the first time in 2016, featuring a well-known “Blue Dog” painting by local artist George Rodrigue. The sticker was supposed to be a one-time offering, but when voters didn’t receive one in 2018, they flooded social media with complaints. So Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin brought the sticker back last year, featuring a new design—a pelican wearing a crown—by a different artist.
“We’re thrilled with this year’s sticker, and even more excited to see pictures of voters across social media platforms on Election Day,” Ardoin said in a statement after revealing the sticker’s design last summer.
In Durham, where stickers are the norm, officials are similarly accustomed to fielding complaints from residents whose ballots arrive without the souvenirs.
“If one of our ballot distributors forgot to put a sticker in the ballot,” Bowens said, “we get calls.”
Despite the widespread interest, state-wide voting stickers are rare, Moretti said, although some state agencies are cautioning that stickers at the polls might not make sense this year because of the coronavirus. It’s not the sticker that’s the problem, elections experts noted, but the close contact required to grab it from a poll worker.
In North Carolina, for example, the state Board of Elections “recommended that county boards of elections not provide ‘I Voted’ stickers to reduce possibility of spreading Covid-19,” said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the agency. “However, we are providing free pens with the state board logo and/or other messages. Voters can use a pen to mark their ballot, then take the pen home as a souvenir.”
Even in states where elections are always conducted primarily by mail, stickers are not a certainty. In Oregon, where residents have voted by mail for two decades, the secretary of state’s office offers only virtual stickers, available for download on its website. From April 22 to September 22, those stickers were downloaded 2,507 times, according to data from the agency.
Some counties in the state do send physical stickers with ballots, said Laura Fosmire, a spokeswoman for the office. “But I’m not sure which ones.”
Utah, which has voted by mail since 2013, also doesn’t include stickers with ballots, which Director of Elections Justin Lee said is “the biggest complaint we’ve had about vote by mail.” The decision there comes down to cost, he said—anything added to the ballot envelope increases the weight, and thus, the postage fees.
“A few counties have figured out a cost-effective way to do that,” he told a local ABC affiliate in February. “But it just adds to the costs, and we don’t want to add unnecessary costs where we don’t need them.”
Voters desperate for a physical sticker can print their own at home or order them online, while sticker enthusiasts hungry for a specific design have gotten creative. In Durham, some voters organized sticker swaps to ensure that the most avid collectors were able to procure the winning design from this year’s contest.
“I have accepted the defeat of my preferred sticker, which was the bull wearing the face mask,” said Alexis Sparko, a Durham resident who requested a mail-in ballot for the first time this year. “I suspect this was not the sticker designer’s intention, but I personally feel that the winning sticker looks like a bull farting stars.”
“Which did make me like it slightly more than I would have otherwise,” she continued. “But I did not feel incredibly attached to its design, so when some friends lamented the fact that they got the older sticker with their mail-in ballot, I was happy to trade.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.