A wasted vote of conscience

Most write-ins get lumped together under ‘others’  

IN THIS PERIOD of discontent with the Republican and Democratic nominees for president, many Massachusetts voters are talking about writing in their own candidate when they enter the voting booth on Nov. 8. But while a write-in vote may be a feel-good act of personal protest, it won’t mean much because a peculiarity of Massachusetts law relegates most write-ins to an anonymous netherworld.

“Unless the [write-in candidate] has registered with the Secretary of State, the vote ends up in the big basket of ‘others,’” said Brian McNiff, spokesman for the state’s top election official, Secretary of State William Galvin.

Only conservative Evan McMullin of Utah has registered with Galvin’s office this year, so that means anybody else’s name that gets written in for president will be lumped in a category called “other.” The “other” votes are tallied, but who they were cast for is never revealed. (Correction: The Secretary of State’s office incorrectly identified McMullin as the only registered write-in candidate. A spokesman said there are four others who have registered and whose votes will be counted: William Feegbeh; Laurence Kotlikoff; Monica Moorehead; and Marshall Shoenke.)

Several Massachusetts newspapers have opted not to endorse anyone in the presidential race this year. The Boston Herald, in its none-of-the-above editorial, suggested one option was to write in “someone who wouldn’t embarrass you when you talk about it on Nov. 9.”

The newspaper said disheartened Republicans and independents could choose Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Mike Pence, or Evan McMullin. Others have talked about writing in Bernie Sanders or Mitt Romney.  But every name except for those who are pre-registered will end up in the anonymous other category.

Write-ins for president are allowed in 41 states and banned in nine others. Where write-ins are allowed, the votes are often tallied and reported. In Massachusetts, election officials only tally the votes of those candidates listed on the ballot and those who have registered as write-in candidates with Galvin’s office and filed a slate of 11 electors 60 days before the election.

In essence, Massachusetts voters aren’t truly voting for the candidate but rather putting a check box next to the name of someone whose slate of electors they endorse. That is what makes a write-in vote for an unregistered candidate moot. The vote count is for elector slates, not candidates.

“It’s, in effect, an act of protest by a voter sending a message that there’s an unappealing choice of official candidates,” said Boston College political science professor David Hopkins, who has authored books and research papers on political parties and voting patterns. “The decision to respond to that choice by going to the polls anyway rather than just staying home – in effect casting a substantively meaningless ballot — reflects a degree of dissatisfaction. Psychologically, it’s perhaps a little more satisfying to write in a name even if it’s the name of a cartoon character.”

Gov. Charlie Baker has vowed not to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and has ruled out a vote for his old boss, William Weld, who is running as a vice presidential candidate with Gary Johnson on the Libertarian ticket. Earlier this year, Baker had said a write-in vote would be an option for him but he’s since said emphatically that he will not vote in the presidential election at all.

McMullin is the first write-in candidate registered with the state since 2004, when Ralph Nader mounted a write-in campaign around the country four years after going the third-party spoiler route that many believe denied Al Gore the presidency. But Nader only received 4,806 write-in votes in 2004, dwarfed by the all-encompassing “All Others,” which tallied 7,028 of the nearly 3 million ballots cast.

Most years, registered write-in candidates in Massachusetts barely get out of the dozens in voting totals unless, like Nader, they have a nationally recognizable name. Nader’s vote total in 2004 was the largest tally for any write-in candidate in Massachusetts going back to 1972. In the 2008 presidential race. won by Barack Obama over John McCain, there were no registered write-in candidates. Nonetheless, nearly 14,500 Massachusetts voters wrote in someone else. That total was higher than the vote totals of three of the four third-party candidates on the state ballot.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Since 1972, eight of the 12 presidential elections, including this year, have had registered write-in candidates. The highest number of write-ins was in 1980, when the four who registered and “all others” totaled 4,555 votes. Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in Massachusetts that year by 3,829 votes, though the third-party candidacy of John Anderson captured more than 15 percent of the Bay State vote, which likely had more to do with Carter’s loss.

“It really is almost an expressive act, often associated with none of the above,” said Donald Brand, a political science professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. “There is still a symbolic difference. One possibility would be to stay home, just don’t vote, but by going to the polls, someone is saying, ‘I care but I reject all the alternatives.’ Even counting them as ‘other,’ that’s still an indication that a certain number of politically active people are casting a protest ballot.”

Brand says the Electoral College process of presidential elections favors the two-party system and renders write-in votes moot anyway. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote nationally – nearly 23 percent in Massachusetts — but didn’t get a single electoral vote. “It slants the system in favor of two major parties and channels voters to choose the least of the evils,” Brand said.