A write-in candidate is a candidate in an election whose name does not appear on the ballot, but for whom voters may vote nonetheless by writing in the person's name. The system is almost totally confined to elections in the United States. 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 his or her 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. 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 rarely win, and sometimes write-in votes are cast for ineligible people or fictional characters. 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.
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. Blank-ballot systems typically require candidates to be nominated in advance.
Historical success of write-in candidates
Generally, write-in candidates can compete in any election within the United States. Typically, write-in candidates have a very small chance of winning, but there have been some strong showings by write-in candidates over the years.
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 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.
California's Proposition 14 impact on 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.
^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"(PDF). Comparative Political Studies. 35 (9): 1027-1053 : 1038. doi:10.1177/001041402237505. ISSN0010-4140. 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 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.