Write-in voting, and why it matters

Want to run as a write-in candidate in California in November 2012? Forget it. On February 10, 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that removes write-in space from California’s general election ballots for Congress and state partisan office. That move makes California one of only six states that won’t allow write-ins on the November 2012 ballot.

California’s move seems like a step backward: It’s one of only two states [Louisiana is the other] that have taken write-ins off the general-election ballot after previously allowing them. In the past 45 years, Florida, Indiana, Delaware, and Ohio expanded their general-election ballots to include write-ins.

California’s new law against write-ins is a loss for democracy. Write-in candidates are a longstanding American tradition. Eliminating them means keeping a lot of quixotic and worthy candidates off the ballot—a couple of whom have had significant success in end-around electoral plays that defied expectations.

Write-in winners

The granddaddy of write-in winners was South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. His racist, segregationist views were objectionable, of course, but in 1954, he bucked his own party, ran as a write-in against a party-anointed candidate, and won with 63 percent of the vote. He was the first U.S. Senator elected to office as a write-in candidate.

More recently, Sen. Lisa Murkowski became the second. Murkowski—the incumbent—ran as a write-in in Alaska in 2010, when the state’s Republicans chose Tea-Party candidate Joe Miller as their nominee in the party primary. Murkowski ran a surprisingly effective write-in campaign, convinced more than 100,000 voters to write in her not-easily spelled name, and won the election by 10,000+ votes.

2012 write-in candidates

Unlike Thurmond and Murkowski, most write-in candidates are long shots. But that doesn’t stop them from trying. This year, for example, in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District, Robert Canfield, of Palatine, is running as a write-in in the Republican primary on March 20. Canfield is opting for write-in status after failing to get enough valid signatures on his candidacy petitions.

Similarly, in Illinois’ 11th Congressional District, community activist Diane Harris—who didn’t get enough signatures, either—will be a write-in candidate on March 20. Like others who take that path, she has voiced disappointment about being removed from the official ballot, but has said that she’s “determined to run.”

Perhaps the most high-profile write-in attempt of 2012 is in Virginia. When Newt Gingrich failed to get enough signatures to get on Virginia’s Republican presidential primary ballot, Gingrich thought he’d simply run as a write-in. Unfortunately, that idea was another political miscue for his campaign:  Virginia state law specifically prohibits voters from writing in the name of a candidate not on the official ballot. Oops.

Write-in rules

In some cases, running as a write-in in a primary can be a path to getting your name included on the official ballot in the general election in November. That’s the plan in Ohio, for Joseph DeMare, a machinist from Bowling Green, who will be a running as a write-in for U.S. Senator, representing the Green Party. Under Ohio’s rules, DeMare has to get at least 500 votes in the March 6 primary to get his name on the November ballot. But, by the way, Ohio doesn’t make write-in voting easy, either: For their write-in votes to qualify, voters will need to print his full name—Joseph Rosario DeMare—on the ballot, without errors.

Rules for write-ins vary from state to state. In Washington, for example, you can register as a write-in—provided you have enough signatures on petitions—up until the day before the election. States have differing ways of counting—or not counting–write-in  votes, too:  Factors include the degree of legibility of the voter’s writing, voter intent, and even spelling.

In Wisconsin, write-in shenanigans

The battle to recall Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has spurred a novel, dirty-trick approach to write-in candidacy. Conservative blogs report that supporters of. Scott Walker are attempting to spoil the recall effort against him with a campaign to get voters to write in the governor‘s name as a candidate in the state’s Democratic primary to seek an opponent for him. According to the Menomonee Falls Patch, the write-in effort started as a conversation on Facebook, but in little more than a week the page “Operation: Write in Scott Walker in Democrat primary“ garnered more than 900 likes. Such a write-in effort is possible under Wisconsin’s open primary system, which allows voters to vote in a party’s primary even if they do not share its political affiliation.


Write-in candidacies and write-in voting seem to me to be a vital component in a democracy. Write-in candidates—as quixotic as they may be—have an opportunity to buck the entrenched party system and bring an alternative agenda and message to the political discourse. For voters, the ability to write-in the name of a candidate not blessed by the political-corporate establishment—or even “none of the above”—is a meaningful and empowering option. And yes, some voters abuse the privilege by writing in silly names. But they have that right, and we should be alert to any efforts to curtail it.

[Update–August 2012, with a tip of the hat to OP reader sassybassylady: California’s rules for write-in candidates for President are different. A candidate’s name can be placed on the certified write in list if 55 “write in electors” (registered voters) sign a form witnessed by the county officials or notarized if sent to the state.]