A write-in candidate is a candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot but seeks election by asking voters to cast a vote for the candidate by physically writing in the person's name on the ballot. Depending on electoral law it may be possible to win an election by winning a sufficient number of such write-in votes, which count equally as if the person was formally listed on the ballot.
Writing in a name that is not already on the election ballot is considered a practice of the United States. However, some other jurisdictions have allowed this practice. In the United States, there are variations in laws governing write-in candidates, depending on the office (federal or local) and whether the election is a primary election or the general election; general practice is an empty field close by annotated to explain its purpose on the ballot if it applies. In five U.S. states there are no elections to which it can apply, under their present laws. Election laws are enacted by each state and in the District of Columbia, to apply to their voters.
How to write in the name
Some U.S. states and local jurisdictions allow a voter to affix a sticker, with the write-in candidate's name, to the ballot in lieu of actually writing in the candidate's name.
Write-in candidacies are sometimes a result of a candidate being legally or procedurally ineligible to run under their own name or party; write-in candidacies may be permitted where term limits bar an incumbent candidate from being officially nominated for, or being listed on the ballot for, re-election. They are also typically used when a candidate, often an incumbent has lost a primary election but still wishes to contest the general election.
In some cases, write-in campaigns have been organized to support a candidate who is not personally involved in running; this may be a form of draft campaign.
Write-in candidates may have to register as candidates
Some jurisdictions require write-in candidates be registered as official candidates before the election. This is standard in elections with a large pool of potential candidates, as there may be multiple candidates with the same name that could be written in.
The spoiler effect
In some cases, the number of write-in votes cast in an election is greater than the entire margin of victory, suggesting that the write-ins may have been sufficient to tip the balance and change the outcome of the election by creating a spoiler effect.
Primary elections in the United States
Many U.S. states and municipalities allow for write-in votes in a partisan primary election where no candidate is listed on the ballot to have the same functional effect as nominating petitions: for example, if there are no Reform Party members on the ballot for state general assembly and a candidate receives more than 200 write-in votes when the primary election is held (or the other number of signatures that were required for ballot access), the candidate will be placed on the ballot on that ballot line for the general election. In most places, this provision is in place for non-partisan elections as well.
The term "write-in candidate" is used in elections in which names of candidates or parties are preprinted on a paper ballot or displayed on an electronic voting machine. The term is not generally used in elections in which all ballots are blank and thus all voters must write in the names of their preferred candidates. Blank ballot election systems reduce the cost of printing the ballots, but increase the complexity of casting and counting votes. Such systems are used in Japan, and used in the past in the French Second Republic, and in elections in the Philippines from World War 2 until the 2010 general election. Some systems use a semi-blank ballot, such as Finland, where the voter must fill in a candidate's given number or letter from a separate ballot, but where there is a clear-cut arrangement with a circle or box with a description of how to vote for a given candidate. Blank-ballot systems typically require candidates to be nominated in advance.
Requirements for write-in candidates in the 2020 United States general election
Registration not required
Write-in not allowed for president, registration required for other offices
Write-in only allowed for substitutes
Write-in not allowed
The requirements to appear on the general election ballot as an independent candidate or to have write-in votes counted vary by state and by political office sought.
Forty-one states and the District of Columbia allow write-in votes on their ballots, including for president; Arkansas, New Mexico and South Carolina allow write-in candidates for some offices but not for president; Mississippi allows write-in votes only to substitute a candidate listed on the ballot who was removed, withdrew or died; Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma and South Dakota do not allow any write-in votes. Most of the jurisdictions allowing write-in votes require that the write-in candidates register by a certain date for their votes to be counted. Typically this registration consists only of a declaration of candidacy, but some states also require signatures of a certain number of voters, additional paperwork or fees. The deadline to register as a write-in candidate is usually later than to petition to be listed on the ballot.
2020 presidential general election
Requirements for independent candidates for president in the 2020 United States general election
Republican William Knowland was elected in 1946 to the U.S. Senate from California, for a two-month term. The special election for the two-month term featured a November ballot with no names printed on it, and all candidates in that special election were write-in candidates.
In 2020, Chris Janicek won the Democratic Senatorial nomination, but during the campaign he sent out sexually inappropriate text messages to staffers causing the Nebraska Democratic Party to withdraw its support from him. The Nebraska Democratic Party attempted to replace Janicek with Alisha Shelton, but Janicek refused to drop out preventing the replacement. Preston Love Jr. later announced his intention to run a write-in senatorial campaign and received the support of the Nebraska Democratic Party, making him the first black person to receive the support of a major party for United States Senate in Nebraska.
In 1930 Republican Charles F. Curry, Jr. was elected to the House as a write-in from Sacramento, California. His father, CongressmanCharles F. Curry Sr., would have been listed on the ballot unopposed but, due to his untimely death, his name was removed and no candidate's name was listed on the ballot.
In 1964 Democrat Gale Schisler was nominated for Congress in Illinois as a write-in candidate when no Democrat filed to run in the primary election. He defeated incumbent Robert McLoskey in the November General Election.
In November 1980, Republican Joe Skeen was elected to Congress in New Mexico as a write-in candidate, because of a spoiler candidate who also happened to be a write-in. No Republican had filed to run against the incumbent Democrat, Harold L. Runnels, before the close of filing. Runnels died on August 5, 1980, and the Democrats requested a special primary to pick a replacement candidate. The New Mexico Secretary of State allowed the Democrats to have a special primary, but did not allow the Republicans to have a special primary, because they had already gone with no candidate. So Skeen ran as a write-in candidate. After Runnels' widow lost the Democratic special primary, she launched her own write-in candidacy, which split the Democratic vote, taking enough votes from the Democratic nominee to give the election to the Republican, Skeen, who won with a 38% plurality.
Ron Packard of California finished in second place in the 18-candidate Republican primary to replace the retiring Clair Burgener. Packard lost the primary by 92 votes in 1982, and then mounted a write-in campaign as an independent. He won the election with a 37% plurality against both a Republican and a Democratic candidate. Following the elections, he re-aligned himself as a Republican.
Democrat Charlie Wilson was the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party for Ohio's 6th congressional district in Ohio to replace Ted Strickland in 2006. Strickland was running for Governor, and had to give up his congressional seat. Wilson, though, did not qualify for the ballot because only 46 of the 96 signatures on his candidacy petition were deemed valid, while 50 valid signatures were required for ballot placement. The Democratic Party continued to support Wilson, and an expensive primary campaign ensued – over $1 million was spent by both parties. Wilson overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate on May 2, 2006 against two Democratic candidates whose names were on the ballot, with Wilson collecting 44,367 votes, 67% of the Democratic votes cast. Wilson faced Republican Chuck Blasdel in the general election on November 7, 2006, and won, receiving 61% of the votes.
Democrat Dave Loebsack entered the 2006 Democratic primary in Iowa's second congressional district as a write-in candidate after failing to get the required number of signatures. He won the primary and in the general election he defeated 15-term incumbent Jim Leach by a 51% to 49% margin.
Jerry McNerney ran as a write-in candidate in the March 2004 Democratic Primary in California's 11th congressional district. He received 1,667 votes (3% of the votes cast), and, having no opposition (no candidates were listed on the Democratic primary ballot), won the primary. Although he lost the November 2004 general election to Republican Richard Pombo, McNerney ran again in 2006 (as a candidate listed on the ballot) and won the Democratic Primary in June, and then the rematch against Pombo in November.
Shelley Sekula-Gibbs failed as a write-in candidate in the November 7, 2006 election to represent the 22nd Texas congressional district in the 110th Congress (for the full term commencing January 3, 2007). The seat had been vacant since June 9, 2006, due to the resignation of the then representative Tom DeLay. Therefore, on the same ballot, there were two races: one for the 110th Congress, as well as a race for the unexpired portion of the term during the 109th Congress (until January 3, 2007). Sekula-Gibbs won the race for the unexpired portion of the term during the 109th Congress as a candidate listed on the ballot. She could not be listed on the ballot for the full term because Texas law did not allow a replacement candidate to be listed on the ballot after the winner of the primary (Tom DeLay) has resigned.
Peter Welch, a Democrat representing Vermont's sole congressional district, became both the Democratic and Republican nominee for the House when he ran for re-election in 2008 and 2016. Because the Republicans did not field any candidate on the primary ballot in those elections, Welch won enough write-in votes to win the Republican nomination.
Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives were elected as write-in candidates during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly from rural districts in the northern and western portions of the state. Factors in play at the time include the newness of Alaska as a state and the previous absence of electoral politics in many of the rural communities, creating an environment which made it hard to attract candidates to file for office during the official filing period. Most of the areas in question were largely populated by Alaska natives, who held little political power in Alaska at the time. This only began to change following the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Known examples of successful write-in candidates include Kenneth A. Garrison and FatherSegundo Llorente (1960), Frank R. Ferguson (1972), James H. "Jimmy" Huntington (1974), and Nels A. Anderson, Jr. (1976). The incumbent in Llorente's election, Axel C. Johnson, ran for re-election as a write-in candidate after failing to formally file his candidacy paperwork. Johnson and Llorente, as write-in candidates, both outpolled the one candidate who did appear on the ballot. Ferguson and Anderson were both incumbents who launched their write-in campaigns after being defeated in the primary election. Anderson's main opponent, Joseph McGill, had himself won election to the House in 1970 against a write-in candidate by only 5 votes.
Carl Hawkinson of Galesburg, Illinois won the Republican primary for the Illinois Senate from Illinois's 47th District in 1986 as a write-in candidate. He went on to be elected in the general election and served until 2003. Hawkinson defeated another write-in, David Leitch, in the primary. Incumbent State Senator Prescott Bloom died in a home fire after the filing date for the primary had passed.
Arizona state senator Don Shooter won the 2010 primary as a write-in and went on to win the general election.
Charlotte Burks won as a Democratic write-in candidate for the Tennessee Senate seat left vacant when the incumbent, her husband Tommy, was assassinated by his opponent, Byron Looper, two weeks before the elections of November 2, 1998. The assassin was the only name on the ballot, so Charlotte ran as a write-in candidate.
Winnie Brinks was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2012 after a series of unusual events. In May of that year, State Representative Roy Schmidt – who had previously filed to run for re-election as a Democrat – withdrew from the Democratic primary and re-filed as a Republican. A friend of Schmidt's nephew filed to run as a Democrat, but withdrew two days later amid anger among local Democrats. This left Democrats without a candidate. Brinks ran as a write-in to be the Democratic nominee. She won the primary and was listed on the ballot in the general election, which she also won. Coincidentally, the general election also saw a write-in candidate, Bing Goei, receive significant support.
Julia Allen of Readington, New Jersey won a write-in campaign in the November 2005 elections for the Township Committee, after a candidate accused of corruption had won the primary.
Tom Ammiano, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, entered the race for Mayor of San Francisco as a write-in candidate two weeks before the 1999 general election. He received 25% of the vote, coming in second place and forcing incumbent Mayor Willie Brown into a runoff election, which Brown won by margin of 59% to 40%. In 2001, the campaign was immortalized in the award-winning documentary film See How They Run.
John R. Brinkley ran as a write-in candidate for governor of Kansas in 1930. He was motivated at least in part by the state's revocation of his medical license and attempts to shut down his clinic, where he performed alternative medical procedures including transplantation of goat glands into humans. He won 29.5% of the vote in a three-way race. Brinkley's medical and political career are documented in Pope Brock's book Charlatan.
Mike Duggan filed petition to run for mayor of Detroit in 2013; however, following a court challenge, Duggan's name was removed from the ballot. Duggan then campaigned as a write-in in the August 2013 primary, with the intent of being one of the top two vote-getters and thus advancing to the general election in November. Duggan received the highest number of votes in the primary, and advanced to the runoff in November. He eventually defeated challenger Sheriff Benny Napoleon and became the Mayor of Detroit.
Donna Frye ran as a write-in candidate for Mayor of San Diego in 2004. A controversy erupted when several thousand votes for her were not counted because the voters had failed to fill in the bubble next to the write-in line. Had those votes been counted, she would have won the election.
Michael Jarjura was re-elected Mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut in 2005 as a write-in candidate after losing the Democratic party primary to Karen Mulcahy, who used to serve as Waterbury's tax collector before Jarjura fired her in 2004 "for what he claimed was her rude and abusive conduct toward citizens". After spending $100,000 on a general elections write-in campaign, Jarjura received 7,907 votes, enough for a plurality of 39%.
James Maher won the mayorship of Baxter Estates, New York on March 15, 2005 as a write-in candidate with 29 votes. Being the only one on the ballot, the incumbent mayor, James Neville, did not campaign, as he did not realize that there was a write-in campaign going on. Neville received only 13 votes.
Beverly O'Neil won a third term as Mayor of Long Beach, California as a write-in candidate in 2002. The Long Beach City City Charter has a term limit amendment that says a candidate cannot be on the ballot after two full terms, but does not prevent the person from running as a write-in candidate. She finished first in a seven-candidate primary, but did not receive more than 50% of the vote, forcing a runoff contest. In the runoff, still restricted from the ballot, she got roughly 47% of the vote in a three-way election that included a second write-in candidate.
In Galesburg, Illinois, an error by the Galesburg Election Commission in late 2010 gave city council candidate Chuck Reynolds the wrong number of signatures he required to be on the ballot for the April 2011 city council election, resulting in him being removed from the ballot when challenged by Incumbent Russell Fleming. Reynolds ran as a write-in vote in the April 2011 election, and lost by 9 votes.
Anthony A. Williams, then incumbent Mayor of Washington, D.C. was forced to run as a write-in candidate in the 2002 Democratic primary, because he had too many invalid signatures for his petition. He won the Democratic primary, and went on to win re-election.
In the November 8, 2011, election for Commonwealth's Attorney of Richmond County, Virginia, 16-year incumbent Wayne Emery has been certified the winner as a write-in candidate over challenger James Monroe by a margin of 53 votes (2.4%) out of 2,230 votes cast, after his petitions were challenged and his name was removed from the ballot.
In the August 4, 2020, Primary Election of Ypsilanti Township, Michigan Monica Ross-Williams, a then Ypsilanti Township Trustee received 3,478 Write-In Votes for Ypsilanti Township Clerk, for the highest number of Write-In Votes in any election in Washtenaw County, Michigan history.
In the 1997 election for Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, Stubbs the Cat won over the two human candidates. He was re-elected every mayoral election thereafter, and served until his death on July 2, 2017.
In 2011, in Pacific, Washington, Marine veteran Cy Sun ousted incumbent mayor Rich Hildreth as a write-in candidate, using a comprehensive ground game in the small town to convince locals to support him over Hildreth, who he accused of corruption. After the election, the county elections office reported that a sufficient number of write-ins votes had made it possible that a write-in could win, and after a count of the write-ins, Sun beat Hildreth by 464 to 401. Sun's mayorship was plagued by political and physical challenges, and Sun would be recalled in 2013.
Eau Claire County, Wisconsinsheriff Ron Cramer, formerly a sheriff's deputy, won election as Eau Claire County's 47th sheriff, defeating disgraced 10-year incumbent sheriff Richard M. Hewitt in a write-in campaign hastily organized just weeks before the election in 1996. He has handily won reelection every 4 years since, usually running unopposed.
Lynda Neuwirth defeated the lone candidate on the ballot, Joseph DiPasquale, for the Ellicottville, New Yorkvillage justice position on March 19, 2019; Neuwirth received three votes to DiPasquale's two. Neuwirth was ousted after only two months in the position, as voters had approved a referendum abolishing the court the previous November; when the abolition was delayed two months, Neuwirth was not allowed to retain her seat and was replaced by a justice from the surrounding town, which will absorb the village court's jurisdiction.
John Adams became an Orange County, California judge in November 2002 after running along with 10 other write-in candidates in the primaries on March 5, 2002 against incumbent Judge Ronald Kline. After the filing deadline in which no candidate filed to run against Kline, a computer hacker discovered that Judge Kline had child pornography on his home computer. Kline got less than 50% of the vote in the primaries, requiring a runoff between him and write-in candidate John Adams (who actually received more votes than Kline). After some legal maneuvers, Kline's name was removed from the general elections, leaving the general election a runoff between Adams and Gay Sandoval, who was the second highest write-in vote getter. Charges against Kline were eventually thrown out.
In a May 2011 school board election for the Bentley School Board in Michigan, Lisa Osborn ran as a write-in candidate and needed just one vote to win a seat. However, she did not receive any votes, even from herself. She explained herself by saying that she was at her son's baseball game and did not have time to go to the polls.
California's Proposition 14 impact on write-in candidates
Although Proposition 14 prohibits write-in candidates in the second round of voting, it has made it easier for write-in candidates in the first round to advance to the second round. This generally happens in elections where only one candidate is listed on the ballot. Since in each race the top two vote-getters from the first round are guaranteed to advance to the second round, if only one candidate is listed on the ballot, a write-in candidate can easily advance to the second round, as the write-in candidate would only have to compete with other write-in candidates for the 2nd spot, not with any listed candidates. In some jungle primary systems, if the winner in the first round wins by more than 50% of the vote, then the second (runoff) round gets cancelled, but in the system set up by Proposition 14, a second (runoff) round is required regardless of the percent of the vote that the winner of the first round received. Proposition 14 therefore guarantees that if only one candidate is listed on the ballot in the first round, a write-in candidate running against the one listed candidate can earn a spot for the second round with as little as one vote.[n 1]
The first election in which Proposition 14 went into effect was the 2012 elections.
California elections in which primary election write-in candidates advanced to the general election
Number of write-in candidates who successfully made it to the November general election
Offices for which write-in candidates successfully made it to the November general election
General election results for candidates who qualified as write-in candidates in the primaries
Another impact of Proposition 14 on write-in candidates is that since the passage of Proposition 14, candidates who are not affiliated with any party can be listed on the ballot for election to offices affected by Proposition 14. Prior to passage of Proposition 14, candidates who were not affiliated with any party, could not run in any party primaries, and were required to run in the general election as write-in candidates.
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With a few exceptions, the practice of recognizing write-in candidates is typically viewed internationally as an American tradition.
A bizarre incident involving a fictitious write-in candidacy occurred in the small town of Picoazá, Ecuador in 1967. A company ran a series of campaign-themed advertisements for a foot powder called Pulvapies. Some of the slogans used included "Vote for any candidate, but if you want well-being and hygiene, vote for Pulvapies", and "For Mayor: Honorable Pulvapies". The foot powder Pulvapies ended up receiving the most votes in the election.
In Brazil, until the introduction of electronic voting in 1994, the ballot had no names written for legislative candidates, so many voters would protest by voting on fictional characters or religious figures. In a famous case, the São Paulo city zoo rhinoceros Cacareco got around 100,000 votes in the 1959 elections for the municipal council, more than any candidate. However, those votes were not considered because Brazilian law stipulates that a candidate must be affiliated to a political party to take office.
Elections in Sweden are open list, with voters placing into the ballot box an envelope containing their choice of either a ballot preprinted with the name of a registered party or else a blank ballot on which they write the name of a party (registered or unregistered) and optionally that of a candidate. A person must consent to being a candidate listed on a preprinted ballot, but there was no such obligation for write-in names until the 2018 general election. In the 2006 municipal elections, the Sweden Democrats (SD) won seats on several councils where they had no nominee or preprinted ballots; most SD voters wrote the party name but no candidate name. The seats were filled by the name most often written, if any, and left empty if no voter wrote in a name. One example was Vårgårda Municipality, where only three of 143 SD voters wrote in names, of which two were for an ineligible non-resident; the winner resigned his seat as he opposed the SD and his sole vote was cast by his father as a joke. In 2010 one Jimmy Åkesson was elected to Staffanstorp Municipality council after a single SD voter wrote his name. The voter apparently intended SD leader Jimmie Åkesson, not resident in Staffanstorp.
Mad magazine satirically called to vote for Alfred E. Neuman as a write-in candidate for every U.S. presidential election from 1960 to 1980 with slogans like "You could do worse–and you already have" and "There are Bigger Idiots running for office!".
In the 1980 U.S. presidential election, guitarist Joe Walsh ran a mock write-in campaign, promising to make his song "Life's Been Good" the new national anthem if he won, and running on a platform of "Free Gas for Everyone." Though Walsh (then aged 33) was not old enough to actually assume the office, he wanted to raise public awareness of the election. (In 1992, Walsh purportedly ran for vice-president, in his song "Vote For Me", a track on his album Songs for a Dying Planet, which was released that year.)
In 2012, a campaign was waged to write in Charles Darwin against Georgia congressman Paul Broun (who was running unopposed) after Broun "called evolution and other areas of science 'lies straight from the pit of hell.' " Darwin received approximately 4,000 votes. However, because Darwin was not registered as an official candidate (some states require even write-ins to be pre-registered), the Georgia Secretary of State did not tabulate those votes.
In 2016, several grassroots campaigns to elect Bernie Sanders President as a write-in candidate were established on social media in the run-up to the United States presidential election. Though Sanders continued to campaign for Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, supporters pointed to alleged DNC bias in the Democratic Party's presidential primaries against Sanders, and Clinton's email scandal, and continued to support him. Both Clinton and Donald Trump would have had to win less than the required 270 electoral college votes for Sanders to have denied either candidate the presidency, and for the election to be passed to the House of Representatives – thus the initial write-in campaign around Vermont, offering only three college votes, was not successful, but Sanders did receive almost six percent of the vote there. The campaign expanded to include all 12 eligible states (one of which listed Sanders as an official write-in candidate), and relied on states such as California, with a high electoral college vote count and large support for Sanders, to be successful in denying both Trump and Clinton.
In Sweden, all handwritten votes are scanned by computer and the results published online, although only votes for valid parties count towards determining successful candidates. In the 2010 general election, ineffective votes included 120 for Donald Duck and 2 for "myself", as well as several computer code snippets apparently intended as code injection attacks aimed at either the program which tallied the votes or the browsers of users who accessed the results website.
In the 2018 Egyptian presidential election, owing to a large number of candidates being arrested or barred from running, Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah received over a million votes, as many Egyptians cancelled out the names of both candidates and wrote his instead. This was higher than the number of votes received by the second place candidate, Moussa Mostafa Moussa. Write-in votes are not deemed valid in Egypt.
^ abData is for the 14 distinct races in which the results for the two write-in candidates who advanced in AD62, one of whom received 17.2% and the other received 5.6%, are summed up to 22.8%. When treating the two candidates in AD62 as distinct candidates and averaging over 15 candidates, the average goes down to 26.6% and the min (obviously) drops to 5.6%
^See, for example, Section 1-4-1101, Colorado Revised Statutes (2008)
^Cox, Karen E.; Schoppa, Leonard J. (2016). "Interaction Effects in Mixed-Member Electoral Systems". Comparative Political Studies. 35 (9): 1027–1053 : 1038. CiteSeerX10.1.1.555.9675. doi:10.1177/001041402237505. ISSN0010-4140. S2CID154631760. Japanese voters receive a blank ballot paper and are instructed to write down the name of an SMD candidate after examining a sheet posted on the wall of their voting booth. This list gives the names of all candidates along with the names of the party that submitted the candidate’s name.
^P.-YC (22 March 2014). "Élections municipales : tout ce que vous devez savoir avant d'aller dans l'isoloir". SudOuest.fr (in French). Retrieved 6 April 2018. La loi du 17 mai 2013 a instauré plusieurs changements dans le scrutin municipal ... Dans les communes de plus de 1000 habitants ... il y a désormais interdiction de voter pour un candidat non déclaré. ...[D]ans une commune de moins de 1000 habitants, ... il est désormais interdit de voter pour une personne qui n’est pas candidate.