How to Mount a Successful Write-in Campaign

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More than two weeks after the midterm elections, the Associated Press has called the Alaska Senate race for Lisa Murkowski, making her just the third senator in U.


More than two weeks after the midterm elections, the Associated Press has called the Alaska Senate race for Lisa Murkowski, making her just the third senator in U.S. history to be elected by write in. So how did she do it? Here are a few things the aspiring write-in candidate should know to help beat the (very long) odds.

1)      Know Your State’s Election Law

The most important aspect to any write-in campaign is being compliant with the law. Does your state even allow for a write-in candidate? Some states don’t. Hawaii banned write-in candidacies altogether in 1992, and the ban has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Some states also have what has been colorfully described as a “sore loser” statute. This is designed specifically to deter candidates that lose a primary from contesting that loss in the general election with a write-in campaign. Fortunately for incumbent Sen. Murkowski, Alaska does not have such a statute.

2)      Know the Ballot and Write-In Procedure

The next step is to become familiar with the layout of your state’s ballot. Ballots are often printed just before an election--sometimes less than 30 days before Election Day. If there is a write-in box at the bottom of the ballot or on the back of a paper ballot, then that information must be communicated to voters as clearly as possible. If your state uses an electronic ballot, and a voter must request a special write-in form, such a bid becomes all the more difficult.

3)      Be Prepared to Fight for Every Vote

It is especially important to have a geographically dispersed legal team prepared to fight for every write-in ballot in the battle to discern the “voter’s intent.” Become familiar with how those votes are counted, and whether misspelling the candidate’s name automatically disqualifies a vote. There will always be challenges from the opposition, but with appropriate legal staffing and enough “eyes on the ground,” disqualified votes can be kept to a minimum.

4)      Mount a Publicity Campaign / Be Extremely Well Known

Lisa Murkowski was a well known senator and daughter of the even better known senator-turned-governor Frank Murkowski. She came from a prominent family and was able to use her built-in name recognition to her advantage as a write-in candidate. Even with her high name recognition, she still had to mount an extensive public advocacy campaign to get out the word of her candidacy (and the correct spelling of her name: M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I). If the write-in candidate is a relative unknown, getting elected becomes even more difficult. Shaking a lot of hands may not be enough – this is where precious media time can make or break a write-in candidacy.

5)      Run in a Small, Under-populated District.

Since World War II, only Rep. Joe Skeen of New Mexico, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Sen. Lisa Murkowski have mounted successful write-in bids against a full field of candidates already on a ballot. That these are all areas with relatively small populations and reasonably low-priced media markets is no coincidence. If you have a smaller constituent base to inform of your write-in candidacy, your bid’s chances of success increase considerably. Jan Baran, an election law attorney with Wiley Rein, LLP, contends that this may be the reason why there have only been three successful write in bids to national office in more than 60 years. “Communicating to an audience of 250,000 voters is a lot easier than trying to mount a write-in campaign in California,” he says. “Even Meg Whitman would have had trouble.” (Of course, she had trouble enough getting elected—and she was on the ballot.)

6)      Survey the Political Environment

The write in candidate must secure a plurality of the vote. Therefore, both major party candidates have to be viable enough to secure some of the vote, but not strong enough to secure a plurality for themselves (or, as was the case in Florida’s Senate race, strong enough to secure a majority out of a three-way contest). Discerning when the political situation is ripe for a write-in campaign is a fine art. No amount of money or legal advice can perfectly establish the conditions that will favor success for the write-in candidate; you have to be lucky or observant enough to see them when they arise.

Above all, know your district or state. Know your constituents and be sure that they know you. There is no magic formula for mounting a successful write in bid, but if you believe the time is right to challenge the establishment, go for it! You might just be the next write-in success story.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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