On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Move to ‘write-in’ Trump alternatives a meaningless gesture

In United States elections, it is often possible for voters to ‘write-in’ a candidate whose name is not on the ballot paper.

But recent announcements by various Republican politicians to disavow their nominee Donald Trump and still display loyalty to the party by writing-in the name of his running mate Governor Mike Pence will be largely meaningless.

Each US state makes its own detailed electoral laws on this issue. They fall into three categories: 9 states which don’t recognise the practice at all, 34 states which regulate it by requiring the named individuals to at least pre-register to have the write-in votes officially counted, and 7 states which will count written-in names without any requirements.

The pre-registration requirements vary, and are certainly less onerous than the requirements for getting on the ballot paper as a formal nomination. Basically these rules streamline the process of recognising and officially tallying what might otherwise be a multitude of small numbers of written-in names, including non-serious ones.

But crucially, the pre-registration state laws effectively require the individual concerned to agree to recognise write-in efforts using their name.

The pre-registration rules also have deadlines, which have now almost all passed with the US elections just a fortnight away.

US writein laws.png

US election write-in laws by state: Nine states don’t allow write-in votes (black), but most have a pre-registration approach, while in seven states election officials will count any written name (dark green)

Since Donald Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has not – and in the circumstances could not – lodge a pre-registration for receiving write-in votes in the 34 states which require it, he won’t be eligible to have any such votes officially counted in all but seven of the states.

One of the first Republicans to claim she would write-in ‘Mike Pence’ was Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. Happily for her she is in an unrestricted write-in state, so there will at least be an official count and record of the vote she says she will cast, and any like hers.

But there is a second problem. In US presidential elections the votes cast do not directly elect the president, they elect members to the 538-strong Electoral College, which goes on to choose the president and vice-president.

Unless a write-in candidate is associated with a list of elector candidates to become Electoral College members, writing in the name of an intended nominee is pointless.

image - Electoral College ballot.jpg

A typical US ballot paper for electing members of the presidential Electoral College.

Marking one of the boxes actually elects the “Electors for” the identified party and its two ticket nominees

(image: posted on Twitter)

Under the plurality rule, each US state’s Electoral College places are all awarded to the individuals named on the ticket which wins the most votes.

Even in a state without write-in pre-registration rules, a presidential hopeful must still nominate specific potential Electoral College members. Clearly Governor Pence will not be doing this in New Hampshire, nor in any of the six other open write-in states.

If the vote of Kelly Ayotte or anyone else contributes to the election of the official Republican-party nominated list of College electors, they would be obliged to vote for Trump as president, regardless of any other name the some voters may have written on their ballots.

A Pence write-in vote in any US state is therefore nothing more than one vote lost to the Republican ticket, and can’t help create College electors for Mike Pence at all.

Only a willing candidate associated with a new slate of potential College electors distinct from those already nominated by the parties could become an actual write-in winner of Electoral College votes.

Vermont Senator (and former candidate for the Democratic nomination for president) Bernie Sanders – also mentioned by people in his support base as a possible beneficiary of a write-in campaign – is in a similar position.

Sanders has vigorously advocated that his supporters vote for Hillary Clinton, and he won’t be agreeing to any write-in pre-registrations or alternative slates of College candidates.

There has never been an instance of a write-in campaign winning US Electoral College places for a candidate not indicated on the ballots. If it happens this year, it won’t be for either Pence or Sanders.

Republicans positioning themselves as Trump disavowers and using ‘write-in Pence’ as a public defence must surely know that their position is without solid foundation.

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This entry was posted on October 26, 2016 by in Current issues, Presidential elections, United States.
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