Voting: Write-in votes make little difference in most elections, but they can be a meaningful part of the math

One of the many write-in votes cast in Virginia Beach during the November 2017 election. [The Princess Anne Independent News]

In November, incumbent state Del. David Yancey, a Republican from Newport News, seemed to hold off challenger Shelly Simonds, a Democrat, by a dozen votes. 

A Libertarian candidate, Michael Bartley, was a factor in that result, but some voters went with none of the above. 

There were more write-ins than votes that made up the margin of victory. Twenty-two people wrote in.

Did write-ins definitively determine the race? No, but they were part of the math.

As many a Virginian may recall, the math kept changing. 

A recount that put Simonds up by one vote. Then some judges took a ballot that had been tossed during the recount and gave it to Yancey, evening things up.

Then Yancey won this past month when his name was drawn from a bowl.

And that helped Republicans maintain a thin edge in the House of Delegates after Democrats had picked up a bunch of seats elsewhere. There’s been more press coverage of the bowl than there has been about write-ins. The Washington Post memorably called the bowl “artsy.”

Write-ins sometimes draw less flattering names.

Inconsequential. Throwaway. Protest. 

Indeed, a few names written-in this past Election Day in Virginia Beach cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.

Yet these votes are counted in Virginia, even when cast for dead people or cartoon characters, but they rarely change outcomes.

Virginia Beach Write-Ins

The Independent News reviewed about half of the write-in votes cast in Virginia Beach during the general election this past year, including those in precincts in the main coverage area of the paper, roughly the southern half of the city. 

The write-ins cast here seemed to support conventional wisdom about how and why voters cast write-ins, outside of an election in which there is an organized write-in campaign.

Last year, Beach voters cast few write-in votes in the contested statewide races – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. In all three races, it was a fraction of a percent of the vote total among city voters.

In the contested state house races, returns show voters in Virginia Beach were less likely to write-in in contested races. Many House of Delegates districts cross municipal borders, but the numbers that follow are only from Virginia Beach voters in those districts. 

For example, a mere 0.16 percent of voters cast write-ins in the 81st House District race between state Del. Barry Knight and Kimberly Anne Tucker. In comparison, 3.21 percent cast write-in votes against state Del. Joseph Lindsey, who was running unopposed in the 90th House District.

Numbers were similar for constitutional offices in Virginia Beach. There was a higher percentage of write-ins in races with unopposed incumbents – 3.36 percent for commonwealth’s attorney and 2.18 percent for revenue commissioner – and a lower percentage in contested races – 0.44 percent for sheriff and 0.49 percent for treasurer.

Who people voted for was telling.

In a tradition that is not unique to Virginia Beach, there were dozens of votes cast for Mickey Mouse among the write-ins The Independent News reviewed. For those interested in such things, Donald Duck got five times the write-ins earned by Daffy Duck.

There were also statements of apparent frustration in uncontested races and some contested races. Anybody Else and variations – Someone Else Please, No Incumbents, Not Him, Other, Not An Option and One Candidate Is Not A Choice.

And at least 40 votes were cast for Merrick Garland, nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Obama, but whose nomination stalled when the Republicans in the senate waited for the next president. Votes also were cast for Garland Merrick.

Virginia Beach Voter Registrar Donna Patterson said there are write-in votes in almost every election, though they cannot be cast in primaries, and they tend to be more numerous in uncontested elections.

“When it’s contested, they probably write-in less because they have other choices,” she said. “When it’s not contested, people tend to want to write someone in. Sometimes it gets pretty interesting.”

Some H.P. Lovecraft fan voted for the cosmic entity called Cthulhu. Another voter favored Han Solo. Others went for Bruce Lee, Homer Simpson, Tammany Hall, Hillary Clinton, John Doe and Donald Trump. 

Also, Donald Trump Jr.

People have the right to write-in, the registrar said. “Some people would call it a wasted vote and some people would call it a statement, but that’s up to the individual,” Patterson said. “Any time someone comes out to vote, I would not call it a wasted vote.”

Mickey Mouse?

“That’s their choice,” she said.


Late last year in Alabama, officials marveled at not only the Democratic gain of a U.S. Senate seat in a reliably red state, but the volume of write-in votes cast. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill called it “unprecedented.” In a special election, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denied.

There were a number of factors in that senate race, but the number of write-in votes was larger than the margin of victory for Jones — far more dramatically so than in the Newport News race noted above. The New York Times reported that fewer than 22,000 votes separated Jones and Moore but more than 22,800 voters decided to cast write-in votes.

“I think a lot of it was just people who felt they needed to vote, especially Republicans, but they could not pull the lever for Roy Moore,” said Brent Buchanan, a Republican national pollster and president of the consulting firm Cygnal in Montgomery, Ala.

Buchanan, reached by telephone, said data showed that there was very strong Republican turnout in that race, despite conventional wisdom that the result had much to do with Democratic turnout.

And write-ins were part of the story. 

“They obviously didn’t vote for Roy Moore,” he said, noting that write-in totals normally might be measured in the double digits rather than by the thousands.

Write-ins are not usually a factor. They tend to change the margin of victory, or the size of the winning plurality, but Buchanan said this race was an anomaly.

“It says more about the candidates who are running and what people think of them than the write-ins themselves,” he said. 

Write-Ins That Count

State Sen. John S. Edwards, a Roanoke Democrat who represents the 21st District, introduced a bill this Virginia General Assembly session [SB150] that would raise the threshold for when an electoral board must determine the total votes for each write-in candidate. [Ed. — The bill had passed the senate and was assigned to a house subcommittee as this story was published online.]

“The registrars and electoral board people asked me to put it in because the 5 percent threshold is too low,” Edwards said during a telephone interview.

“They have to get the exact names – Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck … whoever the write-in is,” the senator added. “They have to write down the exact name and how many votes there were.”

Edwards submitted the bill with a 20 percent threshold, but some felt that was too high, and it was lowered to 10 percent in a compromise. Write-in percentages are rarely that high, and Edwards noted that write-ins usually are not much of a factor. 

But Edwards also recalled one Virginia election in which a write-in candidate named Jackie Stump toppled a longterm incumbent.

Stump, a United Mine Workers leader from Russell County, won a write-in campaign against incumbent Donald McGlothlin in the late 1980s amid the Pittston coal strike involving miners in three states. 

Stump, who died in 2016, ran as an independent in a campaign launched a few weeks before the election, according to The Newport News Daily Press.

There were, as in Alabama, unusual factors. For example, the incumbent’s son was a Russell County judge who levied millions in fines against the union, The Daily Press reported.

Stump served in the General Assembly until 2006, counting among his achievements the Coal Mine Safety Act of 1999, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

“It can effect the outcome of an election,” Edwards said, speaking of write-ins.

A reporter told Edwards about the write-in votes in the 94th House District in Newport News. 

Edwards, reached while in Richmond, where the GOP has maintained a slight edge in the House of Delegates, noted, “It definitely could have mattered.”

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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2 thoughts on “Voting: Write-in votes make little difference in most elections, but they can be a meaningful part of the math

  1. Hi, I cannot speak to any trickery. What is being considered in Virginia is more about the math of this, in which write-ins generally do not change an outcome by causing a write-in candidate themself to win or lose. As it was explained to me by the registrar, a write-in for a candidate already on the ballot does not count for the candidate.

  2. thanks for reply Mr. Doucette– so we were both told the same thing on that point– a write-in vote for a candidate already named elsewhere on the ballot will not be awarded to that candidate. But am still confused about write-in votes.
    As I understand it– in VA, if Jane Doe has properly filed & been qualified as a write-in candidate, then my write-in vote for Jane Doe will be awarded to Jane Doe. If I write-in a person who hasn’t filed & qualified– Joe Smith– my write-in vote for Joe will not be “awarded” to Joe, cuz Joe wasn’t a qualified write-in candidate. But my write-in vote *will* be counted among the total number of votes cast, & called a vote for “all others”. However, the specific names of people who receive votes in this “all others” category *will not* appear in the official election returns.
    Do I have This much of it correct??– 🙂 thanks!

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