This election had been eating at Chris Drake. A staunch liberal in his 20s, he became a Republican by 30. But now 45 and an independent, he couldn’t stomach either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And despite his libertarian leanings, he decided that Gary Johnson lacked the basic “depth of knowledge” to serve as president.
Then he saw the bumper sticker. A joke, sure, but it made sense: “Neil deGrasse Tyson/Bill Nye 2016.” There it was. His write-in choice for president.
“Can we just have some rational people who deal with facts and see how they do?” Drake, a software engineer in Bellevue, Nebraska, said of his dream ticket, two TV-friendly men of science. “I know it’s not going to matter. No one’s ever going to win a write-in vote. But I also can’t not make a vote.”
The write-in option may be the last refuge of an alienated but committed electorate—and this year, it’s hotter than ever. Everywhere you look this season, reasonable people are putting intensely philosophical and creative thought into how, exactly, they will throw away their vote for president.
“Planz for Nov. 8,” Monica Moser, a Nashville musician, wrote on Twitter recently. “Write in @CondoleezzaRice.”
“Anyone else trying to write in Theo Epstein on Nov 8?” tweeted Cameron Weiss, a Los Angeles sports agent.
Other popular choices: Michelle Obama. Jon Stewart. “SNL’s” Kate McKinnon. David Brown, the former Dallas police chief. Ken Bone, that random red-sweater guy from the debate. The write-in option is where our deeply felt sense of civic rights and responsibilities—we should go to the polls, we need not be constrained by the ballot options—meets our fantasy-dinner-party guest list.
Granted, there can be a whiff of strategy behind the pipe dream. After Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination, some of his die-hards tried to mount coordinated write-in campaigns. But those efforts fizzled, largely because of Sanders’s utter lack of interest. (There is literally no hope of drafting some noble but reluctant hero into the White House: In most states, even write-in candidates must get themselves registered for their votes to be counted.)
Recently, write-in mania has shifted to conservative circles—an escape hatch for Never Trump stalwarts who just can’t see themselves pulling a lever for a Clinton.
Ana Navarro, a GOP strategist, says she will probably write in her own mother. Mitt Romney has said he might write in his wife. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that “with (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Albert Schweitzer doubly unavailable (noncitizen, dead), I’m down to Paul Ryan or Ben Sasse.”
More remarkable is the chorus of Republican lawmakers touting their write-in plans. It became especially fashionable after Trump’s lewd groping confessions went public in an “Access Hollywood” video last month: Senators Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman said they will write in Mike Pence, John McCain said he’s considering Lindsey Graham, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam vowed to cast a vote for some other Republican TBA. John Kasich’s office announced Tuesday that he wrote in McCain. But months earlier, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was already promising to write in Jeb Bush, while Sen. Mark Kirk was talking up his vote for either David Petraeus or Colin Powell.
Of course, within these declarations lies a hidden message (Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be FUN to cast a write-in vote?), designed to nudge Trump-resistant Republicans off their couches and to the polls—and, while they’re busy scribbling in their fantasy pick, hopefully support their down-ballot candidates as well.
Still, the energy that people put into picking the perfect write-in is amusing, considering the utter fruitlessness.
“It’s literally impossible to win a presidential election through a write-in vote,” said Jan Baran, an elections lawyer with the Washington firm of Wiley Rein. That’s because of the patchwork of rules governing how write-in votes are counted or whether they are even allowed at all. Nine states don’t permit write-in voting for the presidential race.
So why does any voter bother to write someone in?
“Because they don’t know what the rules are,” Baran said. “Or they know that person is not going to be elected—so it is just therapy of some sort.”
Our electoral Mad Lib may seem like a bit of polling-place whimsy, but the write-in option has deep roots. “At one time,” said Edward B. Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University, “all votes were write-in votes.”
Eventually, political parties started printing tickets of their anointed candidates, which voters could just shove into the ballot box. Some took to crossing out names and writing in their own picks.
Amid concerns of fraud, the United States shifted in the 1890s to government-provided ballots, with checklists of all the candidates. To accommodate old habits, they left a blank space for voters who wanted to choose someone entirely different.
Occasionally, write-in campaigns succeed. After petition snags got him thrown off the 2002 Democratic primary ballot, former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams ran for re-election as a write-in and won. Eight write-in candidates have been elected to Congress, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, including one who unseated John F. Kennedy’s grandfather in 1919.
The option certainly came in handy in 1998, when Tennessee state Sen. Tommy Burks, a Democrat, was killed just weeks before Election Day—and his GOP challenger, Byron (Low Tax) Looper, was charged with his murder. Burks was removed from the ballot, but Looper couldn’t be, since he hadn’t yet been convicted. So Burks’s widow ran as a write-in and won, overwhelmingly. Without that option, Winger noted, “voters would have been forced to vote for a murderer.”
Yet no write-ins have made a mark in presidential politics. Evan McMullin has high hopes this year: Running strong in Utah, he is balloted in 10 other states and drawing buzz among write-in enthusiasts elsewhere. But no presidential write-in candidate has, in a single state, ever won more than 2 percent—which was Ralph Nader’s 2000 tally in Wyoming, one of the few places he was not on the ballot.
Is the write-in option good for democracy? The practice troubles some political theorists, because it essentially gives voters a free pass out of a tough decision.
The write-in vote undermines the process of forcing the electorate to hold its nose and just settle on a darn candidate. In a close race, it could launch the less popular of two major-party candidates to a plurality win.
But the write-in option also offers a fix for those who regard the system of winnowing the field as flawed. In 2010, Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost the Alaska GOP primary to a tea party challenger. She forged ahead as a write-in, arguing that her party’s takeover by ultra-conservatives had robbed general-election voters of a real choice. And she won.
Voting, Foley said, isn’t just about putting someone in office. It carries “a symbolic and expressive value” that makes it hard to dismiss a write-in vote as a wasted one.
“Unless an election comes down to a single vote, no one vote is going to be decisive,” he added. “So if I decide to cast my ballot as a write-in, that may be as important symbolically as if I cast a vote for a winner or a loser in a blowout race.”
That’s how Mike, a defense industry executive in Northern Virginia, sees it. A lifelong Republican (whose job prevents him from speaking publicly about politics), he was alienated early on by Trump’s disparaging comments about McCain’s POW ordeal.
“That was unforgiveable. That’s not the Ronald Reagan way, that’s not the Bushes’ way,” he said. But as for Clinton? “I just know too much about her.” So in early voting, he wrote the name of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis—“a common-sense, call-it-like-it-is guy.”
“Some would consider it a protest vote,” he said. “I consider it a vote of conscience.”
Jenni Mammen Terry, 35, a social worker in Meridian, Idaho, went a step further. Dismayed by her options—“how is this happening, when I feel like everyone I know doesn’t agree with these candidates?”—she set up a Facebook page to rally support for a write-in alternative.
But who? She settled on the wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne Johnson.
“Everybody likes The Rock,” she said. “We could all get behind him, right?”
Jenni! Do you really want The Rock to be president?
Perhaps not, she conceded.
“I’m not going to vote for the lesser of the two evils,” she said. “I don’t have much control. But you have to feel good about your vote.”