A write-in candidate is a candidate in an election whose name does not appear on the ballot, but for whom voters may vote nonetheless by writing in the person's name. The system is almost totally confined to elections in the United States. Some U.S. states and local jurisdictions allow a voter to affix a sticker, with the write-in candidate's name, to the ballot in lieu of actually writing in the candidate's name. Write-in candidacies are sometimes a result of a candidate being legally or procedurally ineligible to run under his or her own name or party; write-in candidacies may be permitted where term limits bar an incumbent candidate from being officially nominated for, or being listed on the ballot for, re-election. In some cases, write-in campaigns have been organized to support a candidate who is not personally involved in running; this may be a form of draft campaign.
Write-in candidates rarely win, and sometimes write-in votes are cast for ineligible people or fictional characters. Some jurisdictions require write-in candidates be registered as official candidates before the election. This is standard in elections with a large pool of potential candidates, as there may be multiple candidates with the same name that could be written in.
Many U.S. states and municipalities allow for write-in votes in a partisan primary election where no candidate is listed on the ballot to have the same functional effect as nominating petitions: for example, if there are no Reform Party members on the ballot for state general assembly and a candidate receives more than 200 write-in votes when the primary election is held (or the other number of signatures that were required for ballot access), the candidate will be placed on the ballot on that ballot line for the general election. In most places, this provision is in place for non-partisan elections as well.
Generally, write-in candidates can compete in any election within the United States. Typically, write-in candidates have a very small chance of winning, but there have been some strong showings by write-in candidates over the years.
In 1944, Thomas Dewey won the Republican Pennsylvania presidential primary with 146,706 write-ins.
In 1948, Harold Stassen won the Republican Pennsylvania presidential primary with 81,242 write-ins.
In 1952, Robert A. Taft won the Republican Nebraska presidential primary with 79,357 write-ins, Estes Kefauver won the Democratic Pennsylvania presidential primary with 93,160 write-ins and Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican Massachusetts presidential primary with 254,898 write-ins.
In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican Massachusetts presidential primary with 51,951 write-ins.
In 1960, Richard Nixon won the Republican Massachusetts presidential primary with 53,164 write-ins and John F. Kennedy won the Democratic Pennsylvania presidential primary with 183,073 write-ins along with the Democratic Massachusetts presidential primary with 91,607 write-ins.
In 1968 in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson did not file, but received write-ins totaling 50% of all Democratic votes cast. Senator Eugene McCarthy, who campaigned actively against Johnson’s Vietnam war policies, was on the ballot. He received an impressive 41% of the vote and gained more delegates than the President.
Republican William Knowland was elected in 1946 to the U.S. Senate from California, for a two-month term. The special election for the two-month term featured a November ballot with no names printed on it, and all candidates in that special election were write-in candidates.
In 1930 Republican Charles F. Curry, Jr. was elected to the House as a write-in from Sacramento, California. His father, CongressmanCharles F. Curry Sr., would have been listed on the ballot unopposed but, due to his untimely death, his name was removed and no candidate's name was listed on the ballot.
In 1964 Democrat Gale Schisler was nominated for Congress in Illinois as a write-in candidate when no Democrat filed to run in the primary election. He defeated incumbent Robert McLoskey in the November General Election.
In November 1980, Republican Joe Skeen was elected to Congress in New Mexico as a write-in candidate, because of a spoiler candidate who also happened to be a write-in. No Republican had filed to run against the incumbent Democrat, Harold L. Runnels, before the close of filing. Runnels died on August 5, 1980, and the Democrats requested a special primary to pick a replacement candidate. The New Mexico Secretary of State allowed the Democrats to have a special primary, but did not allow the Republicans to have a special primary, because they had already gone with no candidate. So Skeen ran as a write-in candidate. After Runnels' widow lost the Democratic special primary, she launched her own write-in candidacy, which split the Democratic vote, taking enough votes from the Democratic nominee to give the election to the Republican, Skeen, who won with a 38% plurality.
Ron Packard of California finished in second place in the 18-candidate Republican primary to replace the retiring Clair Burgener. Packard lost the primary by 92 votes in 1982, and then mounted a write-in campaign as an independent. He won the election with a 37% plurality against both a Republican and a Democratic candidate. Following the elections, he re-aligned himself as a Republican.
Democrat Charlie Wilson was the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party for Ohio's 6th congressional district in Ohio to replace Ted Strickland in 2006. Strickland was running for Governor, and had to give up his congressional seat. Wilson, though, did not qualify for the ballot because only 46 of the 96 signatures on his candidacy petition were deemed valid, while 50 valid signatures were required for ballot placement. The Democratic Party continued to support Wilson, and an expensive primary campaign ensued – over $1 million was spent by both parties. Wilson overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate on May 2, 2006 against two Democratic candidates whose names were on the ballot, with Wilson collecting 44,367 votes, 67% of the Democratic votes cast. Wilson faced Republican Chuck Blasdel in the general election on November 7, 2006, and won, receiving 61% of the votes.
Democrat Dave Loebsack entered the 2006 Democratic primary in Iowa's second congressional district as a write-in candidate after failing to get the required number of signatures. He won the primary and in the general election he defeated 15-term incumbent Jim Leach by a 51% to 49% margin.
Jerry McNerney ran as a write-in candidate in the March 2004 Democratic Primary in California's 11th congressional district. He received 1,667 votes (3% of the votes cast), and, having no opposition (no candidates were listed on the Democratic primary ballot), won the primary. Although he lost the November 2004 general election to Republican Richard Pombo, McNerney ran again in 2006 (as a candidate listed on the ballot) and won the Democratic Primary in June, and then the rematch against Pombo in November.
Shelley Sekula-Gibbs failed as a write-in candidate in the November 7, 2006 election to represent the 22nd Texas congressional district in the 110th Congress (for the full term commencing January 3, 2007). The seat had been vacant since June 9, 2006, due to the resignation of the then representative Tom DeLay. Therefore, on the same ballot, there were two races: one for the 110th Congress, as well as a race for the unexpired portion of the term during the 109th Congress (until January 3, 2007). Sekula-Gibbs won the race for the unexpired portion of the term during the 109th Congress as a candidate listed on the ballot. She could not be listed on the ballot for the full term because Texas law did not allow a replacement candidate to be listed on the ballot after the winner of the primary (Tom DeLay) has resigned.
Peter Welch, a Democrat representing Vermont's sole congressional district, became both the Democratic and Republican nominee for the House when he ran for re-election in 2008. Because the Republicans did not field any candidate on the primary ballot, Welch won enough write-in votes to win the Republican nomination.
Several members of the Alaska House of Representatives were elected as write-in candidates during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly from rural districts in the northern and western portions of the state. Factors in play at the time include the newness of Alaska as a state and the previous absence of electoral politics in many of the rural communities, creating an environment which made it hard to attract candidates to file for office during the official filing period. Most of the areas in question were largely populated by Alaska natives, who held little political power in Alaska at the time. This only began to change following the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Known examples of successful write-in candidates include Kenneth A. Garrison and FatherSegundo Llorente (1960), Frank R. Ferguson (1972), James H. "Jimmy" Huntington (1974), and Nels A. Anderson, Jr. (1976). The incumbent in Llorente's election, Axel C. Johnson, ran for re-election as a write-in candidate after failing to formally file his candidacy paperwork. Johnson and Llorente, as write-in candidates, both outpolled the one candidate who did appear on the ballot. Ferguson and Anderson were both incumbents who launched their write-in campaigns after being defeated in the primary election. Anderson's main opponent, Joseph McGill, had himself won election to the House in 1970 against a write-in candidate by only 5 votes.
Carl Hawkinson of Galesburg, Illinois won the Republican primary for the Illinois Senate from Illinois's 47th District in 1986 as a write-in candidate. He went on to be elected in the general election and served until 2003. Hawkinson defeated another write-in, David Leitch, in the primary. Incumbent State Senator Prescott Bloom died in a home fire after the filing date for the primary had passed.
Arizona state senator Don Shooter won the 2010 primary as a write-in and went on to win the general election.
Charlotte Burks won as a Democratic write-in candidate for the Tennessee Senate seat left vacant when the incumbent, her husband Tommy, was assassinated by his opponent, Byron Looper, two weeks before the elections of November 2, 1998. The assassin was the only name on the ballot, so Charlotte ran as a write-in candidate.
Winnie Brinks was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2012 after a series of unusual events. In May of that year, State Representative Roy Schmidt – who had previously filed to run for re-election as a Democrat – withdrew from the Democratic primary and re-filed as a Republican. A friend of Schmidt's nephew filed to run as a Democrat, but withdrew two days later amid anger among local Democrats. This left Democrats without a candidate. Brinks ran as a write-in to be the Democratic nominee. She won the primary and was listed on the ballot in the general election, which she also won. Coincidentally, the general election also saw a write-in candidate, Bing Goei, receive significant support.
Julia Allen of Readington, New Jersey won a write-in campaign in the November 2005 elections for the Township Committee, after a candidate accused of corruption had won the primary.
Tom Ammiano, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, entered the race for Mayor of San Francisco as a write-in candidate two weeks before the 1999 general election. He received 25% of the vote, coming in second place and forcing incumbent Mayor Willie Brown into a runoff election, which Brown won by margin of 59% to 40%. In 2001, the campaign was immortalized in the award-winning documentary film See How They Run.
John R. Brinkley ran as a write-in candidate for governor of Kansas in 1930. He was motivated at least in part by the state's revocation of his medical license and attempts to shut down his clinic, where he performed alternative medical procedures including transplantation of goat glands into humans. He won 29.5% of the vote in a three-way race. Brinkley's medical and political career are documented in Pope Brock's book Charlatan.
Mike Duggan filed petition to run for mayor of Detroit in 2013; however, following a court challenge, Duggan's name was removed from the ballot. Duggan then campaigned as a write-in in the August 2013 primary, with the intent of being one of the top two vote-getters and thus advancing to the general election in November. Duggan received the highest number of votes in the primary, and advanced to the runoff in November. He eventually defeated challenger Sheriff Benny Napoleon and became the Mayor of Detroit.
Donna Frye ran as a write-in candidate for Mayor of San Diego in 2004. A controversy erupted when several thousand votes for her were not counted because the voters had failed to fill in the bubble next to the write-in line. Had those votes been counted, she would have won the election.
Michael Jarjura was re-elected Mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut in 2005 as a write-in candidate after losing the Democratic party primary to Karen Mulcahy, who used to serve as Waterbury's tax collector before Jarjura fired her in 2004 "for what he claimed was her rude and abusive conduct toward citizens". After spending $100,000 on a general elections write-in campaign, Jarjura received 7,907 votes, enough for a plurality of 39%.
James Maher won the mayorship of Baxter Estates, New York on March 15, 2005 as a write-in candidate with 29 votes. Being the only one on the ballot, the incumbent mayor, James Neville, did not campaign, as he did not realize that there was a write-in campaign going on. Neville received only 13 votes.
Beverly O'Neil won a third term as Mayor of Long Beach, California as a write-in candidate in 2002. The Long Beach City City Charter has a term limit amendment that says a candidate cannot be on the ballot after two full terms, but does not prevent the person from running as a write-in candidate. She finished first in a seven-candidate primary, but did not receive more than 50% of the vote, forcing a runoff contest. In the runoff, still restricted from the ballot, she got roughly 47% of the vote in a three-way election that included a second write-in candidate.
In Galesburg, Illinois, an error by the Galesburg Election Commission  in late 2010 gave city council candidate Chuck Reynolds the wrong number of signatures he required to be on the ballot for the April 2011 city council election, resulting in him being removed from the ballot when challenged by Incumbent Russell Fleming. Reynolds ran as a write-in vote  in the April 2011 election, and lost by 9 votes.
Anthony A. Williams, then incumbent Mayor of Washington, D.C. was forced to run as a write-in candidate in the 2002 Democratic primary, because he had too many invalid signatures for his petition. He won the Democratic primary, and went on to win re-election.
In the November 8, 2011, election for Commonwealth's Attorney of Richmond County, Virginia, 16-year incumbent Wayne Emery has been certified the winner as a write-in candidate over challenger James Monroe by a margin of 53 votes (2.4%) out of 2,230 votes cast, after his petitions were challenged and his name was removed from the ballot.
In the 1997 election for Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, Stubbs the Cat won over the two human candidates. He has been re-elected every mayoral election since, and, as of July 18, 2012, celebrates 15 years in office.
John Adams became an Orange County, California judge in November 2002 after running along with 10 other write-in candidates in the primaries on March 5, 2002 against incumbent Judge Ronald Kline. After the filing deadline in which no candidate filed to run against Kline, a computer hacker discovered that Judge Kline had child pornography on his home computer. Kline got less than 50% of the vote in the primaries, requiring a runoff between him and write-in candidate John Adams (who actually received more votes than Kline). After some legal maneuvers, Kline's name was removed from the general elections, leaving the general election a runoff between Adams and Gay Sandoval, who was the second highest write-in vote getter. Charges against Kline were eventually thrown out.
In a May 2011 school board election for the Bentley School Board in Michigan, Lisa Osborn ran as a write-in candidate and needed just one vote to win a seat. However, she did not receive any votes, even from herself. She explained herself by saying that she was at her son's baseball game and did not have time to go to the polls.
California's Proposition 14 impact on write-in candidates
Although Proposition 14 prohibits write-in candidates in the second round of voting, it has made it easier for write-in candidates in the first round to advance to the second round. This generally happens in elections where only one candidate is listed on the ballot. Since in each race the top two vote-getters from the first round are guaranteed to advance to the second round, if only one candidate is listed on the ballot, a write-in candidate can easily advance to the second round, as the write-in candidate would only have to compete with other write-in candidates for the 2nd spot, not with any listed candidates. In some jungle primary systems, if the winner in the first round wins by more than 50% of the vote, then the second (runoff) round gets cancelled, but in the system set up by Proposition 14, a second (runoff) round is required regardless of the percent of the vote that the winner of the first round received. Proposition 14 therefore guarantees that if one candidate is listed on the ballot in the first round, a write-in candidate running against the one listed candidate can earn a spot for the second round with as little as one vote.[n 1]
The first election in which Proposition 14 went into effect was the 2012 elections.
Number of write-in candidates who successfully made it to the November ballot
Offices for which write-in candidates successfully made it to the November ballot
General election results for candidates who qualifed as write-in candidates in the primaries
With a few exceptions, the practice of recognizing write-in candidates is typically viewed internationally as an American tradition.
Several cases of elected write-in candidates occurred in the 2006 Swedish municipal elections. Under Swedish electoral law, free ballots are provided for any party that received more than 1 percent of the votes in one of the two latest parliamentary elections, irrespective of whether the party actually stood any candidates in the municipality. In some municipalities, voters cast a sufficient number of ballots for the nationalist Sweden Democrats to allow them to get a seat on the municipal council. (The membership of municipal councils in Sweden is relatively large, with even the smallest municipalities, numbering just a few thousand inhabitants, required to have a council of at least 31 members.) In cases where a party did not field any eligible candidates, people whose names were written in were elected, though many subsequently resigned their seats. In places where no candidates were written in, the seats were left vacant.
A bizarre incident involving a fictitious write-in candidacy occurred in the small town of Picoazá, Ecuador in 1967. A company ran a series of campaign-themed advertisements for a foot powder called Pulvapies. Some of the slogans used included "Vote for any candidate, but if you want well-being and hygiene, vote for Pulvapies", and "For Mayor: Honorable Pulvapies". The foot powder Pulvapies ended up receiving the most votes in the election.
In Brazil, until the introduction of electronic voting in 1994, the ballot had no names written for legislative candidates, so many voters would protest by voting on fictional characters or religious figures. In a famous case, the São Paulo city zoo rhinocerosCacareco got around 100,000 votes in the 1959 elections for the municipal council, more than any candidate. However, those votes were not considered because Brazilian law stipulates that a candidate must be affiliated to a political party to take office.
Mad magazine satirically called to vote for Alfred E. Neuman as a write-in candidate for every U.S. presidential election from 1960 to 1980 with slogans like "You could do worse–and you already have" and "There are Bigger Idiots running for office!".
In the 1980 U.S. Presidential election, rock star Joe Walsh ran a mock write-in campaign, promising to make his song "Life's Been Good" the new national anthem if he won, and running on a platform of "Free Gas for Everyone." Though Walsh (then aged 33) was not old enough to actually assume the office, he wanted to raise public awareness of the election. (In 1992, Walsh purportedly ran for vice-president, in his song "Vote For Me", a track on his album Songs for a Dying Planet, which was released that year.)
In 2012, a campaign was waged to write in Charles Darwin against Georgia congressman Paul Broun (who was running unopposed) after Broun "called evolution and other areas of science 'lies straight from the pit of hell.' " Darwin received approximately 4,000 votes. However, because Darwin was not registered as an official candidate (some states require even write-ins to be pre-registered), the Georgia Secretary of State did not tabulate those votes.
In 2016, several grassroots campaigns to elect Bernie Sanders President as a write-in candidate were established on social media in the run-up to the United States presidential election. Though Sanders continued to campaign for Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton, supporters pointed to alleged DNC bias in the Democratic Party's presidential primaries against Sanders, and Clinton's email scandal, and continued to support him. Both Clinton and Donald Trump would have had to win less than the required 270 electoral college votes for Sanders to have denied either candidate the presidency, and for the election to be passed to the House of Representatives – thus the initial write-in campaign around Vermont, offering only 3 college votes, was not successful, however he did receive almost six percent of the vote there. The campaign expanded to include all 12 eligible states (one of which listed Sanders as an official write-in candidate), and relied on states such as California, with a high electoral college vote count and large support for Sanders, to be successful in denying both Trump and Clinton.