Come Election Day on Tuesday, Iowa political collector John Olsen will be at the polls like a lot of other Americans. But Olsen won’t be voting.
See, he’s already taken care of that task with early voting in his state. Olsen says he never knows where he’ll be on Election Day, and many times it’s at a polling place other than his own.
Olsen has one of the largest collections of non-partisan vote items in the country, and arguably the largest. There might be those who have collections of suffrage items, or civil rights voting items that are larger, but when it comes to a general “get to the polls” collection, Olsen is the man among political collectors. They don’t call him Dr. Vote for nothing.
His collection now includes more than 1,100 lapel devices (buttons, ribbons), several hundred paper items and numerous 3-D type items.
Olsen began collecting these items in 1995. He first voted for president himself in 1988.
“It dawned on me that the true measure of our communities, cities, states, and nation is most accurately judged by the number of its citizens voting,” Olsen said. “The success or failure of every candidate and referendum depends upon voters turning out to vote. I decided that someone should try to document the efforts of the hundreds of different non-partisan organizations that have been formed to educate and turn out voters as well as the expansion of voting rights in America.”
And thus a collection was born.
Olsen’s collection has been aided by the fact that what he collects isn’t necessarily coveted by collectors who want partisan items, or items for specific candidates. Through the years, collectors have sent Olsen items at low- or no-cost to add to his collection until it has grown today into something that has historic significance.
When asked to name three or four items from his collection that would be his favorites, Olsen sounds as though he’s nearly in pain. Every item seems special. But when pushed, he names four.
First, there’s a Get Out the Vote poster from 1972 that he truly adores.
“It features a famous photo of a black teenager named Bobby Simmons with his entire face covered in white sunscreen except on his forehead where it has been wiped off to spell the word “VOTE,” Olsen said. “The photo was taken during the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma-to-Montgomery.”
Olsen is also quite proud of a pin from the Iowa League of Women Voters convention in 1922, just three years after the league was founded and two years after women gained the right to vote.
Another favorite is a 4-inch pinback from the “Rock the Vote” campaign.
“While there are more graphically interesting buttons than this one, this is one of my favorite buttons because of its rarity — never seen another one — and it represents the most significant non-partisan vote organization targeting youth,” he said.
A pair of white sneakers might seem like an odd political collectible, but not for Olsen. These sneakers were made by the McQ company.
“McQ Inc. was a company with a distinctive vote logo and two images, a crying eagle and butterfly,” he said. “The vote logo was emblazoned on a wide variety of commercial items in 1972, including these sneakers which also have the word VOTE repeated all over the sole.”
There are more McQ items that Olsen would love to add to his collection.
“The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC has in storage virtually a complete collection of the McQ Inc. related vote items, especially a lot of clothing,” he said. “The best of these items in my opinion are the mint condition red or blue pair of sneakers (one pair per color) similar to my white pair. But, the red and blue really make these sneakers just pop out at you.”
The hunt for 40-year-old tennis shoes goes on for Olsen, as well as vote stickers from polling places across the country and any other non-partisan vote item that’s out there. But he has one special wish for everyone this Tuesday.
“Please, please get out and vote!” he said. “It is very possible that this election could come down to two to five votes per precinct in multiple states. Your vote could be the one that makes the difference.”