One man’s treasure3/1/2017
Dumpster diving with Dr. Vote
“Do you know everything that’s in here?” That’s the question to John Olsen, a collector of political campaign memorabilia who is widely known as “Dr. Vote” for his stockpile of sometimes rare, fun and non-partisan “Get Out The Vote” items.
Olsen thinks for a moment when asked if he remembers each item in his basement. He surveys his bookshelves brimming with biographies of great men, crowded closets and his walls adorned with electoral history.
“No,” he says and shakes his head. But he knows political history — and he owns it, too.
Olsen’s collection includes stickers, posters, drinking glasses, clothing, ballot boxes and too many other items to list. Possibly the most impressive is the subset of more than 2,000 pinback buttons.
This treasure trove is a political junkie’s dream, spanning an American political arena ranging from the most recent election back to a time when “Get Out The Vote” wasn’t really even a thing yet.
No one knows for sure which campaign was first to churn out undecided or unmotivated voters. Part of assigning a date depends on how the idea is defined, but it goes back to at least the 1800s.
“The oldest thing I have is from 1898,” says Olsen of the button that says “No Boss Controls My Vote.”
The first true non-partisan “Get Out The Vote” campaign was in 1952 and 1956 from the American Heritage Foundation — not related to the modern Heritage Foundation, he said. The organization rallied the businesses, fraternities, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and worked to get everyone involved.
Olsen and his son have an after-caucus tradition they hold true to each cycle.
“Son,” says Olsen to his boy, Ian. “After the caucuses, what do we like to do?”
The response is euphoric and unabashed: “Dumpster diving!”
Olsen makes his dives at the local headquarters of various candidates a family affair. He once found a cardboard box of disposable cell phones that were used exclusively by staffers from the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.
“There was a box of them and a box of chargers,” he says. “I should have taken them, but they didn’t say Hillary on them, so there was no way to authenticate them.”
But Olsen and son did get the buttons that said “Hillary precinct leader.”
His coolest find, he says, is a Joe Biden briefing book replete with talking points, mission statements, strategy and itineraries, which his son hadn’t seen.
“Did you go dumpster diving without me?” Ian screeches.
Olsen reminds him he was only 1 year old when he found it.
“It (the binder) has his whole speech, who he was addressing, who he was to acknowledge, what reporters were supposed to be there, another speech, position statements, suggested talking points… there is a ton of historical stuff in there.”
Olsen says the best parts of collecting are being a member of the American Political Items Collectors (APIC) and making life-long friends.
“You know the weirdest thing about our hobby?” he asks. “We don’t talk politics. I have friends (in the APIC) that are 160 degrees different than me in politics, but they’re good people, and we celebrate our collecting and finding historic items.” ♦
John Olsen’s talking points
Today, vote buttons appeal primarily to specific voting groups based on demographics including ethnicity, gender, social class or other commonalities.
The issuers of the materials often portray themselves as non-partisan, but each largely prompts a given constituency with a specific politically based outcome in mind. In political buzzword parlance, this is known as “identity politics.”
Collecting historically relevant memorabilia can be relatively inexpensive. An innumerable amount of items are purchased for less than $50 each. People with an interest in the hobby can learn more by visiting www.apic.us.