Write-in votes deserve respect, tabulation during election season
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 23:02
Paul Broun, a Republican Congressman from rural Georgia, has the good political fortune of representing a very conservative district.
It is viewed to be so safe for the Republican Party that the Democrats declined to run a candidate in opposition to him in spite of the possible influence that the presence of Barack Obama might have brought to bear in the other races on the ballot.
But it would be incorrect to state that Broun faced no opponent in 2012 – indeed, his leading challenger for election was none other than Charles Darwin, the 19th century English naturalist.
Over 5,000 of Broun’s constituents wrote in Darwin’s name onto the ballot as a protest against their Congressman’s emphatically professed disdain for the theory of evolution as “a lie from the pit of hell”.
The Darwin voters obviously failed to elect their man, but they did succeed in transforming an uncontested coronation of the incumbent Congressman into a unique and attention-grabbing protest action.
We often hear or think of the write-in vote as a frivolous and irresponsible waste of an individual’s voice in the democratic process, as an aimless, disaffected vote for Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald.
This is, indeed, sometimes the case: New York City’s Board of Elections recorded, in the 2008 Presidential election, 2 votes each for Jesus Christ and Mickey Mouse and one vote each for Russian President Vladimir Putin and writer/actress Tina Fey. But those few wasted votes were dwarfed by the number of write-in votes cast for actual one-time Presidential contenders deprived of a position on the ballot – almost 300 were cast in the city for Hillary Clinton and a further 200 voters wrote in the name of then-Congressman Ron Paul.
The evidence suggests that Paul’s name may have been written in some 2,500 times in New York State alone this past November – even though the former candidate did not conduct a write-in campaign.
Lisa Murkowski, however, did in her attempt to win election without the Republican nomination in Alaska – her success bears witness to the fact that it’s possible to win an election, even to the United States Senate, if you aren’t on the ballot.
The write-in vote can indeed be a powerful vote of discontent and of rebellion against the limited choices presented - but only if they are treated as such and properly counted.
In the State of Connecticut, law, ballot design and election procedure combine to render write-in voting nearly useless.
In order to have write-in votes counted for a particular candidate, that candidate must first register with the Secretary of the State.
Votes for unregistered candidates – like Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton – are almost never counted as such despite their contribution to the overall turnout percentage.
This administrative hurdle defeats the purpose of writing in a candidate and stifles the disaggregated, grassroots political behavior which makes the practice so effective and unruly.
For all we know, Kemba Walker may have received one thousand votes for President last year from his grateful UConn fans – but because of his “unofficial” write-in status, we will remain in the dark.
And even in those rare cases in which an individual chooses to accept his write-in votes, the voters receive no notification to that effect.
And even if those hurdles prove superable, the write-in voter must squeeze his chosen candidate’s name into a space on the ballot measuring barely one inch square.
Not too daunting for Kemba’s voters, but if Jamal Coombs-McDaniel is your man, then your vote may depend upon the compactness and legibility of your handwriting.
As a former pollworker, I understand election officials’ complaints that most write-in votes are a waste of time and don’t contribute anything meaningful to our democracy.
To be sure, the knowledge of how many votes were cast by the American voting public for various athletes and cartoon characters is trivial at best and only causes greater delays in the post-election ballot counting process. But I think that argument misses the point of write-in voting.
The Georgian Charles Darwin voters were casting votes against their Congressman and in protest of his uncontested election, not in favor of the notable scientist’s imaginary candidacy.
More often than not, these votes register discontent with the available choices, the process or the system and thereby serve as a peculiar barometer of alienation with our electoral democracy. For the sake of its health, we ought to read that barometer more carefully.