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'I Voted' Stickers Cost the Government Millions

If you voted last month, you were most likely handed a snazzy “I voted” sticker as you left your local polling place. 

The stickers may be a fun way of demonstrating your involvement in the political process, but, as the story behind them shows, they are also a sad caricature of misplaced priorities, and federal, state, and local spending run amok.

Perhaps the most common “I Voted” sticker, a widely-distributed small, white, oval that includes an American flag, costs about 15 cents per sticker. Though it's unclear exactly how many stickers governments around the country did purchase, it is worth noting that ensuring that one of these stickers would be available to each of the United States's 230 million voters would cost over $34 million.  With these stickers available all over the country, there is little doubt that the government spent millions for adults to wear stickers.

With state and local budgets around the country stretched to the breaking point, a number of jurisdictions decided that they could do without the stickers. Voters were widely disappointed. The Wall Street Journal reported that voters lamented the lack of stickers in New York City; Louisville; Lake County, Illinois; and Waldwick, New Jersey.  A California NBC affiliate reported that on their “Facebook page, a poster named Celso Silvestre Montes wrote: ‘I voted by mail ... Do I still get a sticker? That's like the main purpose of voting.’" The Atlantic even published an impassioned defense of the stickers, claiming that the stickers’ social value in getting voters to the polls is “priceless.” 

With the federal government increasingly engaging in what some have called a “silent bailout” of state and local governments, the spending habits of state and local governments are increasingly legitimate issues of concern for people who live outside of any jurisdiction’s boundaries, and for the American people as a whole.

People clearly like the stickers, but most people also believe that the federal government’s mounting debt is a major problem. The stickers may serve a purpose, but they are hardly “priceless” — state and local governments spent millions on them just last month. In the midst of a recession and two wars, with more people on food stamps than ever before, and in a fiscal environment where every dollar spent is another dollar we are borrowing from our children and grandchildren, it’s important to ask: Do we really need our children and grandchildren to buy us stickers

For my part, I figured I would be the one buying stickers for them. 

The stickers have, however, served one clear purpose — business promotions. In recent years, businesses throughout the country have offered discounts or other promotional pricing to anyone wearing an “I Voted” sticker. 

Unfortunately, as the U.S. Attorney in San Diego reminded the public just before this year’s election, it is against federal law to offer such promotions. Einstein Bagels changed their promotion right before the election to avoid legal trouble, just as Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Ben & Jerry’s did just before the 2008 election. One business responded by declaring on Twitter, “Ok, ok. We are apparently being illegal. We will not reward you for voting. [Election Day] is STICKER DAY. Free sm coffee if you wear a sticker!!”

Even if we accept that the government is justified in spending money it does not have on election supplies that the election could easily proceed without, the stickers’ existence have also led the government to spend additional resources making sure no one uses the stickers for unauthorized purposes. There’s little sense in that either.

Our country has almost innumerable difficult spending decisions ahead, but deciding whether to spend millions on stickers that adults will wear for a few hours and throw away should not be difficult. In the future, Americans should demonstrate that they recognize that money does not grow on trees, and that their priorities are in order, and choose to tolerate elections without stickers.

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