As Election Day dawns on two of the most unpopular candidates in history, many voters are looking to ditch both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at the polling booth. Google searches for “write-in” have surged, reaching their highest level since 2004, when the search engine first began compiling data.
Frustrated everyday Americans aren’t the only ones considering scrapping the nominees: Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman and Rep. Joe Heck have vowed to write in Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence. Sen. John McCain said he’ll write in his buddy, former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham. Another former candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said he wrote in McCain. Some Bernie Sanders supporters say they’re planning to ignore his call to vote for Hillary and write in the Vermont senator instead.
But depending on location, those so-called "protest votes" might not even register.
According to the National Association of Secretaries of State, write-ins are actually prohibited in nine states: Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota. (Mississippi makes an exception if a candidate on the ballot dies or withdraws. And though the Nevada ballot doesn’t include a fill-in-the-blank option, it does allow citizens to vote for “none of these candidates” – an option nearly 6,000 voters exercised during the Obama-Romney matchup in 2012, according to FEC data.)
Of the states that allow do write-ins, most require candidates to file paperwork days, weeks, or even months ahead of the election in order to have their votes tallied. If the candidates don’t file, their votes will be dumped into the “other” category, alongside votes for “Santa Claus” and “me.” (Apparently, people like to vote for themselves.)
Some states, like Nebraska and Wyoming, charge write-in candidates a fee to register, NASS documents show. Others, like North Carolina, make candidates submit a signed petition, and one, Georgia, requires candidates to publish a notice in a general circulation newspaper.
Only eight states -– Alabama, Iowa, North Dakota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont -– tally write-ins without requiring candidates to file paperwork, the NASS says, and even the least restrictive states have some disqualifying criteria.
In Alabama, for example, write-in candidates must be: 1. qualified to hold the office, 2. able to reach a threshold number of votes, 3. “nonfictional,” and 4. alive, in order to be officially tallied.
“Write-in votes are commonly cast for fictional characters such as ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck,’ as well as for ‘None of the Above,’ and dead people,” the state’s attorney general wrote in an opinion submitted to the secretary of state in 1999. “It is the opinion of this Office that vote totals should be given only for living human beings.”
Regardless, write-in votes, which generally make up less than 1 percent of all the votes cast in a presidential election, probably won’t come close to electing a president. However, they are on the rise. According to the FEC records, miscellaneous write-in candidates accounted for only 0.02 percent of the vote in 1984. In 2012, however, they accounted for 0.11 percent -- a fivefold increase over 28 years.
For voters looking to hop on the write-in wagon, but worried about their spelling – take heart. Despite her notoriously difficult last name, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murskowski won her Senate seat through a write-in campaign in 2010. In general, misspellings don’t void votes, as long as the election official reading it can reasonably infer who you meant to vote for.