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Write in candidate

The Complete Guide to Write-In Candidates

2 min read
Write in candidate
Laurette LaLiberte · Apr 12, 2024

In January of 2024, a Texas man legally changed his name to “Literally Anybody Else” to run for president as a write-in candidate. His reason is the same that many voters cite for their apathy during election season: bad candidates that leave us feeling we have no choice in who represents us. 

In this guide, we’ll explore what it means to run for office as a write-in candidate. We’ll cover the distinctions between write-in and independent candidates, the practicalities of voting for and running as a write-in candidate, and the realistic odds of success.

What Is a Write-In Candidate?

A write-in candidate is an individual whose name does not appear on the ballot but who seeks election by encouraging voters to manually write their name on the ballot paper. This option symbolizes the ultimate form of electoral freedom by allowing voters to choose someone who they believe is the right fit for the office regardless of the preselected choices.

Can anyone be a write-in candidate? 

Generally, the answer is yes, but it comes with a few caveats. Candidates can’t just declare their intentions and hope that enough people hear about their candidacy to write their name on a ballot. 

Eligibility to run as a write-in candidate varies by jurisdiction and usually requires you to adhere to the same qualification criteria that apply to ballot-listed candidates, such as age, citizenship, residency, and absence of felony convictions. Some areas also require write-in candidates to file specific paperwork before the election, signifying their intent to run and enabling votes for them to be counted.

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For example, the election laws in Texas require write-in candidates to fulfill the typical requirements to qualify for a place on the ballot, in addition to signature requirements and/or a filing fee. 

In Texas, a write-in candidate must gather 113,151 signatures of registered voters who did not participate in either establishment primary. Then, they must officially declare their intention to run as a write-in candidate and file such a declaration with the Secretary of State by the filing deadline of August 19, 2024. Write-in candidates can only run for one office per election. 

Since 2012, write-in votes have more than quadrupled, and they continue to multiply with every election. This increase speaks to the state of an electorate that’s hungry for any kind of choice beyond the status quo. 

The journey of a write-in candidate, which is steeped in grassroots engagement and voter education, doesn’t just test the resolve and resourcefulness of the candidate. It also serves as a barometer for the electorate's openness to alternative voices.

Difference Between Write-In and Independent Candidates

While both write-in and independent candidates represent alternatives to major and minor party nominees, a crucial distinction lies in ballot presence. Independent candidates, despite not aligning with major political parties, undergo the petition process to secure a spot on the ballot. 

Write-in candidates do not appear on the ballot and must rely on voters to manually add their names. However, they still need to meet the baseline qualifications for whatever political office they seek. This makes their campaigns significantly more challenging in terms of awareness, visibility, and voter outreach.

How to Vote for a Write-In Candidate

Voting for a write-in candidate usually involves entering the candidate's name in a designated space on the ballot. However, it's crucial for voters to know the exact spelling of the candidate's name and follow any specific instructions provided on the ballot to ensure that their vote is valid. 

In some places, unqualified write-in votes for president will invalidate the entire ballot, so it’s important to write in someone who went through the process to qualify for inclusion. Currently, Virginia is the only state that allows virtually unrestricted write-in candidacy for all elected offices, but candidates for president and vice president must register. Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Dakota are among the states that bar write-in votes altogether. It’s also illegal in every state to write in a candidate whose name appears elsewhere on the ballot. 

Some jurisdictions use electronic voting systems that have different methods for write-in votes, so familiarizing yourself with the voting machine's instructions is essential. In Oregon, write-in votes are only counted if the total number of write-in ballots reaches or exceeds the number of votes for an establishment candidate for the same office. This is due to the fact that write-ins cannot be scanned or validated on the state’s voting equipment and must be hand-counted. In other words, the demand must meet the effort. 

Knowing the rules in your particular state for write-in candidacies, whatever office they seek, will ensure that your ballot won’t be declared spoiled and that down-ballot choices won’t be lost. 

How to Run for Office as a Write-In Candidate

To be viewed as a viable candidate and not just a protest run, you’ll need a focused strategy that’s centered around visibility and voter education. 

Here's how to embark on this journey:

  1. Understand Legal Requirements: Familiarize yourself with local election laws, including any necessary paperwork and deadlines for declaring your write-in candidacy. That information is usually available from the Secretary of State website or election office for your state.

  2. Campaign Strategy: Develop a robust campaign plan that emphasizes direct voter engagement, social media presence, and community involvement. Highlight your platform clearly and concisely, making the case for why voters should take the extra step to write in your name.

  3. Voter Education: Educate your potential voters on how to correctly write in your name on the ballot. This could include instructional materials, videos, and practice ballots.

  4. Grassroots Mobilization: Leverage a grassroots campaign to build momentum. Engage volunteers who are passionate about your cause to spread the word and provide instructions for the write-in process.

Likelihood of Getting Elected as a Write-in Candidate

The odds of winning an election as a write-in candidate are undeniably steep, largely due to lower visibility and the additional effort required from voters. Such campaigns are more successful in down-ballot races for state, regional, and local offices than for federal offices.

However, victories, while rare, are not unheard of, and success stories often share common strategies. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska won her seat in 2010 via a write-in campaign after she failed to place in the state’s primaries. The state also uses a ranked choice voting system (RCV) for general elections. 

The basics of a solid ground game include:

  • Clear, Compelling Messaging: Successful write-in candidates usually have a strong, resonant message that clearly distinguishes them from the ballot-listed options.

  • Effective Use of Social Media: Social media platforms can level the playing field by providing a way to reach large audiences with minimal expense.

  • Community Engagement: Direct community involvement and the ability to mobilize local support networks can significantly impact a write-in campaign's visibility and viability.

Pros and Cons of Running as a Write-In Candidate

Running for office as a write-in candidate offers a unique pathway to elected office, albeit one that requires meticulous planning, determination, and an innovative approach to communication and outreach. Whether or not a write-in campaign ends in a successful election, it can make a real impact on the political landscape.

As with any path to victory, there are advantages and drawbacks to running as a write-in candidate.

Pros of Running a Write-in Campaign

  • Flexibility: Write-in campaigns can be launched closer to the election date, offering an alternative when ballot access deadlines have passed.

  • Voter Empowerment: These campaigns can energize voters by providing an alternative that feels more personal and grassroots-oriented.

  • Symbolic Stand: Even if victory is not likely, running as a write-in can make a significant statement and bring attention to specific issues.

Cons of Running a Write-in Campaign

  • Visibility Challenges: The absence of ballot access means write-in candidates must work harder to ensure that voters are aware of their candidacy.

  • Complexity for Voters: The additional steps required to vote for a write-in candidate can deter voters from casting their ballots for a write-in.

  • Counting Issues: Votes for write-in candidates are more susceptible to being discounted due to variations in spelling or failure to follow ballot instructions correctly.

Overall, write-in campaigns have a much lower chance of success than other political campaigns. Still, write-in campaigns can make an impact, especially at the local level.

Final Thoughts

The path of a write-in candidate is filled with challenges, but it goes to show that anyone really can aspire to public office. While the likelihood of success is modest, using strategic insights and effective campaigning can help you defy the odds. 

While the practical challenges are many, the potential to disrupt traditional political narratives and introduce fresh perspectives into the public discourse cannot be understated. For those considering a write-in bid, the endeavor is as much about making a statement and contributing to the democratic process as it is about seeking office.

If you’re serious about running for office — either as a write-in candidate or as a candidate on the ballot — offers free resources that can help you run for office and win. Book a meeting with our team to discuss your options and talk about how you can get your campaign off the ground!

Ever thought about running for office?

Book a free meeting about launching your campaign
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How to Run for Office
Voter Education
Politics 101
Write in candidate
By Laurette LaLiberte
Laurette LaLiberte is an activist and freelance writer located in Michigan.