A write-in candidate is an individual whose name does not appear on the ballot on Election Day but seeks office by asking voters to cast a vote by writing his or her name on the ballot. Write-in candidates can surface when the office-seeker failed to win a primary election to appear on the ballot, failed to file nominating petitions on time, did not qualify for office, or looks for notoriety as a publicity stunt or a spoiler effect. It is rare for write-in candidates to have any success, but sometimes they can prevail. Notably, Strom Thurmond was elected to the U.S. Senate from South Carolina in 1954 as a write-in candidate after he was prevented from being nominated by the Democratic Party to be listed on the ballot. A write-in candidate can win in Michigan, but certain requirements must be followed:
- Election officials cannot count a write-in vote for a person in a primary or general election unless that person has filed a declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate with the filing official for the elective officer. This declaration of intent must be filed ON OR BEFORE 4 p.m. on the second Friday immediately before the election. MCL 168.737a(1).
- However, if a candidate whose name is printed on the official ballot for the election dies or is disqualified AFTER 4 p.m. on the second Friday immediately before the election, the requirement of filing a declaration of intent to be a write-in candidate does not apply for any write-in candidates for that office. If a death or disqualification occurs, the board of election inspectors shall count all write-in votes for write-in candidates for the office sought by the deceased or disqualified candidate. MCL 168.737a(2).
- If the office being sought is for precinct delegate, the write-in candidate must file a declaration of intent on or before 4 p.m. on the Friday immediately before the election with the county clerk OR before the close of polls on Election Day if filed with the board of election inspectors. MCL 168.737a(3).
The local clerk is responsible for notifying the necessary precinct board of any write-in candidates that filed the declaration of intent by the filing deadline.
Election inspectors must record all write-in votes exactly as they were cast. Name variations and misspelling are preserved with the board of canvassers to ultimately decide if they are attributable to the same candidate. In addition, the voter must inscribe the write-in candidate under the correct office and correct political party (if any) as indicated by the write-in candidate on the declaration of intent. If it is not written on the correct place on the ballot, it will not be counted.
The write-in candidate can be declared the winner in the primary or general election under the following circumstances:
- GENERAL ELECTION PARTISAN OR NON-PARTISAN BALLOT – A write-in candidate is elected to office if he or she receives more votes than any other candidate for the same office with no minimum number of votes required.
- NON-PARTISAN PRIMARY BALLOT – A write-in candidate is nominated to appear on the general election ballot if he or she receives enough votes to qualify. A person qualifies in a non-partisan primary to be nominated if he or she places in a position no great than twice the number of offices available to be elected. Foe example, if there are two positions available on a local school board election, a person must receive enough votes to reach first place, second place, third place or fourth place to move on to the general election. A minimum number of write-in votes is not required.
- PARTISAN PRIMARY BALLOT – “A person who is voted for on a party ballot for a state, district, township, county, city, or ward office or for the office of United States senator or representative in Congress whose name is not printed on the ballot and who has not filed a nominating petition for the office voted for, shall not be considered nominated as the candidate of the party for the office, nor be certified as a nominee unless the person receives a total vote equal to not less than .15 of 1% of the total population, as reflected by the last official federal census, of the district for which nomination is sought, but not less than 10 votes for the office, or a total vote equal to 5% of the greatest number of votes cast by the party for any office at the primary in the state, congressional, or other district, township, county, city, or ward, for a candidate or for all candidates for nomination for an office for which only 1 person is to be nominated, whichever is greater. However, for an office to which more than 1 candidate is to be elected, the 5% limitation shall be based upon the greatest number of votes cast at the primary for any candidate for the same office.” MCL 168.582.
Write-in candidates have the greatest success in small local elections but sometimes they can make a difference in state-level elections. In the 2012 Michigan Election, Democrat Winnie Brinks won election in the 76th District for the Michigan House of Representatives after entering the primary election as a write-in candidate. In a bizarre series of events, the incumbent Roy Schmidt quietly changed parties and filed to run for re-election as a Republican only 10 minutes before the filing deadline. His son offered a family friend $1,000.00 to take his place on the ballot but not campaign. This would ensure a general election victory if he won the Republican party nomination because he would have no Democratic opponent. Once the scheme was uncovered, the Democratic Party recruited Ms. Brinks to run as a write-in candidate in the primary election and she secured the minimum 1,000 votes to obtain the Democratic nomination. Mr. Schmidt did win the Republican primary but lost the general election to Ms. Brinks.
Write-in votes are on the rise as more voters become disenchanted with the increasing polarized nature of politics. In presidential elections, write-in candidates amount to 0.02% of the vote in 1984 but rose to 0.11% in 1984. Many of these are for fictional characters like Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck or for deceased famous people in the form of a protest vote. However, no one can rule out that a viable write-in candidate can emerge on the national stage to one day upset the election for the major parties.
If you have any questions about Michigan election law or need legal representation, do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.