In an election season dominated by COVID-19, economic insecurity and, yes, partisan gridlock, there's one thing we all can agree on: Everybody in the U.S. loves getting an "I Voted!" sticker. Voting sticker selfies started going viral on Twitter and Instagram during the 2012 election, but the 2020 election sticker is different. Earning that "I Voted!" sticker is more a rite of passage — something to prove you've voted in this truly historic election. There's even a guy in Jersey City, New Jersey, determined to send a sticker to every person who voted by mail. These things are no joke.
But as random as stickers might seem, our obsession with them makes perfect sense to social science researchers who study voter turnout and what motivates people to go to the polls. Old-fashioned civic duty is definitely a strong incentive, but so is social status.
"Most people prefer others to see them as voters," says Stefano DellaVigna, an economics professor at the University of California Berkeley and author of the study "Voting to Tell Others," one of many fascinating studies proving that we vote, in part, because we want our friends and neighbors to know that we voted.
His study notes that it's a long-established fact that 25 to 50 percent of nonvoters lie to pollsters when asked if they voted in the last election.
"On its face, this indicates that people hate to admit to being nonvoters," says DellaVigna. "They face this trade-off between telling the truth and looking bad, or lying."
It's one thing to lie to a stranger with a clipboard, but how much harder is it to lie to a friend or family member who asks if you voted? It's that expectation of being asked — and the cost of lying to someone you know — that could motivate an on-the-fence voter to go out and cast a ballot.
DellaVigna calculates that the potential public shame of not voting is enough to boost voter participation by 2 to 3 percentage points. In a tight election, that could be huge. "A campaign would kill to get 2 to 3 percentage points," he says.
How do "I Voted!" stickers play into all of this? DellaVigna says that when you slap a voting sticker on your chest, you're sending two clear messages to the other members of your social network. The first message, obviously, is that "I Voted!" You're essentially answering the question before it's even asked. The second message is implied, but just as strong.
"If you see people wearing the sticker on election day," DellaVigna says, "you might think, 'Oh geez, my grandma is going to ask me whether I voted.' If you're on the fence, that might be enough to push you over."
DellaVigna's study is not the only research that backs up the sneaky power of the "I Voted!" sticker. A landmark Swiss study back in 2005 studied voter participation before and after a new law allowing voting by mail. The Swiss government expected voter turnout to increase if voters were given the easier option of voting from home. Instead, voter turnout actually dropped, especially in smaller towns.
"As long as poll-voting was the only option, there was an incentive (or pressure) to go to the polls only to be seen handing in the vote," wrote Patricia Funk, author of the Swiss study. "Since in small communities, people know each other better and gossip about who fulfills civic duties and who doesn't, the benefits of norm adherence were particularly high in this type of community."
But when vote-by-mail became an option, the pressure to publicly vote decreased. People could just as easily lie and say they voted from home.
Voting stickers have been around since 1986, but started to gain popularity during the tight 2000 Bush-Gore race with its disputed outcome. Social media has taken this colorful representation of voting to another level. Not every jurisdiction offers stickers; at 15 cents a pop, the cost adds up when ordering for thousands or millions.
But it might be worth it if voter participation increases. Facebook experimented with a clickable "I Voted!" button with somewhat amazing results. In 2010, researchers from the University of California San Diego tested different versions of the button on 61 million Facebook. When Facebook users were shown six profile pics of friends who had already voted, they were 2.08 percent more likely to click the "I Voted!" button themselves, than those who just received the information encouraging voting but no pictures of friends.
What's the take-home message? If we want to increase voter turnout in America — among the lowest in developed countries — maybe we just need to hand out more stickers. Gold stars wouldn't hurt either.
Originally Published: Nov 3, 2016