By Burt Helm Couldn't make up your mind for John Kerry or George Bush? Ralph Nader not your bag? Then the only way you can pick the candidate you want is to write him or her in. Many states make such an effort for Presidential races difficult -- and six states ban White House write-in votes altogether.
Regardless of which state you live in, voting for a write-in contender is much more complicated than scribbling whatever name you please on the dotted line at the bottom of the ballot. Thirty-five states require that a write-in candidate must submit some form of affidavit and, sometimes, a filing fee at least one month before the election. In North Carolina, these candidates must circulate a petition. Then their names are posted on a list at the polling place, though not on the official ballot. All other write-in votes are tossed.
DESIGN TROUBLE. For third-party candidates who want to demonstrate that their platform has won some support, the widely varying registration rules create problems. And nobody has had a tougher time than Nader. The Presidential hopeful, who initially planned to be on the ballot in all 50 states, has ended up on only 35 and has relied on write-in registration for 13 more.
Nader ran into trouble with the write-in regulations in Ohio, where he was kicked off the official ballot after the write-in submission deadline. That means any Ohio votes for him will be thrown away. "They basically screwed us," says Kevin Zeese, a Nader spokesperson.
Once an office-seeker is registered as a write-in, their voters will run into more trouble. States with punch-style "chad" ballots, usually don't provide a space for such candidate, but instead require that votes be written inside the secrecy envelope. The punch-style Illinois absentee ballot comes folded over a Styrofoam block, and the write-in space is on the foam side, hidden from view. That can confuse voters, third-party advocates argue.
CONSTANT CANDIDATE. Some write-in contenders just don't care. Deborah Elaine Allen of Houston is a registered write-in candidate in Texas, where registration is free and requires only the signatures of people willing to represent her in the electoral college. What's her platform? "There's no policy. I just walked right around the neighborhood and got 34 [signatures]," she says. Allen says she has run for office since 1981 and has been a write-in candidate for city councillor, county commissioner, and judge.
In most states, registered write-in candidates like Nader and Allen at least get the joy of seeing their piddling results the next day. But in Oregon, the computerized tabulation system won't calculate any specific write-in results unless it appears the contender has enough support to win.
And five states -- Hawaii, Nevada, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Carolina -- don't allow any Presidential write-ins, and never have. Louisiana, the sixth no-write-in state, got rid of them in 1975 after it adopted a system in which anyone could get on the regular ballot, regardless of party affiliation. "The Supreme Court upheld Louisiana's ban on write-ins in 1992" says Richard Winger, of Ballot Access News, a San Francisco-based group that works to make ballots nonpartisan.
However, despite the legal precedent, "we've actually expanded write-ins in many states," Winger says. More states than ever allow write-ins for federal elections, and as voting becomes fully electronic, "the write-in voter has the fun of using a computer keyboard, making it look official" and easy to tabulate.
THURMOND'S OPENING. But don't write off the write-in as simply the domain of fringe and hobbyist politicians or jokesters who vote for cartoon characters and sports stars. According to Winger, write-in votes serve an important purpose when a shock late in the election occurs -- like the death or indictment of a candidate. Then parties will scramble to field someone else.
In the last 100 years, write-in contenders have won at least seven U.S. congressional races. The most famous one is probably Strom Thurmond, who won by write-in in 1954 after the well-entrenched incumbent suddenly passed away.
In a tense Presidential election, write-in votes get in the way more than anything. Polling places are prepared, though. In states where voters fill in bubbles or complete arrows with a pencil, optical scanning machines are preprogrammed to automatically "kick out" write-ins from the computer's running tabulation, says Joe Kanefield, Arizona's election director. The machine then literally spits the write-in ballots into a pile on the floor. County representatives sort through the pile later.
NO JOKE. Unregistered write-ins have to be thrown out manually. "My friends used to write me in for county attorney, and I used to think it was funny," says Kanefield, letting his chuckle stop short. "[That was] until I got into the election administration. It takes time to process those."
The person who has to sort your vote for Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon from the pile will undoubtedly find it less amusing than you do. Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York