Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Will my write-in vote count?

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

Thinking of casting a vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or anyone else on the ballot? You’re not alone: Ohio Gov. John Kasich wrote in Sen. John McCain, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte plans to cast a vote for Republican VP nominee Mike Pence and Google search data suggests that Bernie Sanders may get a lot of write-in votes. But depending on your state, your write-in vote may not be counted.

Often, write-in votes are lumped into an “other” category unless the write-in candidate has filled out paperwork alerting state election officials of their candidacy. Massachusetts and 33 other states require such paperwork to ensure that write-in votes are tallied. And many of these states require write-in candidates to jump through many hoops for consideration: Georgia requires an advertisement in a newspaper, a petition of 500 signatures is needed in North Carolina, and in Illinois, a formal declaration of intent has to be filed in every single county.

Only seven states -- Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Iowa, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island -- automatically count any write-in vote. On the other end, eight states -- Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota -- don’t accept write-in votes at all. And some states, such as Mississippi, almost always discount them. 

Given all these hurdles, it’s not surprising that no write-in candidate has ever become president. But it has happened in Congressional races and even presidential primaries: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska ran a successful write-in campaign for Senate in 2010, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won his write-in campaign for Senate in 1954, and in 1964, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. won three Republican presidential primaries. The odds for a write-in candidate to make it to the White House are slim, though.  Rogers Smith, a constitutional law expert at the University of Pennsylvania, says they’re about the same as the winning candidate “rowing across the Atlantic in a one-person rowboat and calling upon the Queen.”

Yet these odds don’t stop people from trying. In the 2008 general election, 800 write-in votes were cast in New York City alone, including one for Socrates, one for Oprah Winfrey and two for Vladimir Putin.

And this year has already proven to be very popular for write-in candidates. In Connecticut, 20 presidential hopefuls have registered as write-in candidates and the number is similar in Ohio, with 18 registered write-in candidates. While these people will not appear on the ballots themselves, voting machines are registered to accept their names.

Only time will tell if this year will see a real increase in write-in votes. But even a surge is unlikely to stop President Clinton or President Trump from taking the White House.


Photo: Flickr / redjar