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People voting by mail are disappointed they won’t be getting ‘I Voted’ stickers this election

Some communities are also skipping the tradition during in-person voting on Nov. 3.

Caroline Kleeman of Somerville bought 1,000 "I Voted" stickers online for friends and neighbors who will miss out on receiving one at the polls or because they voted by mail.
Caroline Kleeman of Somerville bought 1,000 "I Voted" stickers online for friends and neighbors who will miss out on receiving one at the polls or because they voted by mail.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Audrey Didier was counting the days until the upcoming election, eager to take part in the democratic process in a pivotal presidential year.

The 19-year-old from Westborough was also excited for something else: joining the legions of voters who celebrate their civic involvement by placing a small, oval sticker on their shirts that proudly proclaims “I Voted.”

But that dream was dashed recently when Didier fished around inside the envelope containing her mail-in ballot. To her dismay, the tiny token of democracy was not there.

“Not seeing one when I opened [the envelope] was a little disappointing,” she said, “because I feel like it’s such a badge of honor.”

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People across the state who have opted to vote by mail due to COVID-19 have been disappointed to find that their voting materials didn’t include the patriotic decals. What’s more, city and town officials in some communities have said that, for health reasons, poll workers won’t be handing out the stickers to in-person voters this year.

There has been some debate about who first distributed the stickers to constituents, with most reports tracing them back to the ’80s. But Intab LLC, an election-supply company based in North Carolina, is largely credited with popularizing the standard “I Voted” badges, featuring a rippling American flag, that are commonly given to voters.

For many, the stickers are a small but prized token, a symbol of the importance of casting a vote. People slap the stickers onto their clothes and snap photos of them to post on social media. Others use them to reap rewards from businesses offering freebies if you can prove, by wearing one, that you voted.

“We live in a world of memes, of emojis, of visual content that expresses things — how we feel, what we do, who we are. And the ‘I Voted’ stickers reflect that as well,” said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For adults, they’re almost like captain’s wings you get as a little kid for flying on an airplane.”

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Stewart said there’s also a bit of proselytizing involved: the stickers may nudge people who see them to go and vote themselves.

But this year, with many people voting by mail to avoid the crowds at the polls, the stickers could prove harder to come by — unwelcome news at a time when small joys are sorely needed.

Debra O’Malley, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office, said it’s up to individual cities and towns to purchase the “I Voted” stickers for elections, a process done through election supply vendors. Handing them out is optional.

O’Malley said in an e-mail that she knows “a lot of voters would have liked to have stickers included in their ballot packages, but everything you add to those packages slows down the mailing of ballots.” Some clerks may have prioritized speed over stickers, she said.

In Acton, Town Clerk Eva Szkaradek said stickers were not included with mail-in ballots and won’t be handed out to voters on Nov. 3, even though the town has plenty in stock.

“With COVID we do not hand out any additional items to voters,” she said. “It is unfortunate; I know that the voters always like getting them.”

Officials in Cambridge and Somerville said their respective communities are also forgoing the tradition this election, citing COVID-19 concerns.

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Meanwhile, in Boston, voters can still get their hands on the tiny stickers, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office — but only under certain circumstances.

Stickers will be available at all polling locations both for early voting and on Election Day — or when a person brings a mail-in ballot to an early voting location, officials said. But the stickers were not included with mail-in materials, and voters who use the unstaffed ballot boxes set up around the city will miss out.

The lack of stickers for mail-in ballots has spurred some voters to take matters into their own hands.

In February, New Jersey resident Greg Sarafan launched the “Voter Sticker Project,” an initiative to mail “I Voted” stickers to people who didn’t get one. The stickers are free, and he has already sent hundreds to voters across the country and other parts of the world, he said.

“An ‘I Voted’ sticker is a ephemeral symbol of pride — a fleeting indicator of someone’s commitment to civic engagement,” Sarafan said in a message to the Globe. “I get all types of people who ask. A lot of first-time voters, families, or people getting them for a friend or family member who didn’t get one and is really disappointed.”

Closer to home, Somerville resident Caroline Kleeman purchased 1,000 “I Voted Today” stickers online, which she plans to hand out leading up to Election Day.

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Kleeman first offered the stickers in a private Facebook group last week. Within minutes, excited voters were sending her messages about picking them up at her house. On Friday, she set out on foot to affix dozens of the stickers to the special ballot boxes set up around the city.

“The sticker is just one little tangible way that people can feel like they’ve done a good thing, show it off, and get recognition for it,” said Kleeman, who has a background in behavioral psychology. “I want to encourage people to vote, and if getting a sticker does that than I’m happy to help.”

“The power of the sticker shouldn’t be underestimated,” she added.

While many mail-in voters are left stickerless, at least one community didn’t disappoint its constituents.

Northampton resident Olivia Love, 25, said she was pleasantly surprised when she found a circular “I Voted Today” sticker in her package.

“It put an actual smile on my face,” she said. “In the past, leaving my polling place wearing the sticker always [made] me feel proud. Being able to carry on that tradition in the COVID-era, where mail-in voting is the safest option, gives me a sense of normalcy and joy.”

Pamela L. Powers, Northampton’s city clerk, said that was the intent. After seeing how people welcomed the stickers during early voting in 2019, they decided to keep the tradition going.

“So many people need to vote by mail in 2020,” Powers said by e-mail. “Why not add something that will make it feel more like a complete voting experience?”

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Caroline Kleeman bought 1,000 "I Voted" stickers online for friends and neighbors who will miss out on receiving one. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)
Caroline Kleeman bought 1,000 "I Voted" stickers online for friends and neighbors who will miss out on receiving one. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.