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NPR Politics Podcast: How Do Write-In Candidates Work?


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in U.S. history. For those searching for another choice, it might be tempting to write in a candidate on the ballot. Well, a listener asked the NPR Politics Podcast team what happens to those write-in votes, are they actually counted? Well, here's the answer from NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, Susan Davis and Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It'll be curious to see what it looks like on Election Day because typically, write-in votes, you get a general sense if there were X amount of write-in votes. But it takes a while for that to process and see, you know, 10 were for Mickey Mouse...


DETROW: ...Sixteen were for this person.

DAVIS: Although it really is more about making the voter feel better about - and sleeping at night...

DETROW: Oh, yeah.

DAVIS: ...Cause a lot of states also have rules that even if you write someone in that if you're a write-in candidate, you still have to register with the secretary of state as a write-in candidate. So just writing in Paul Ryan in many states where he's not a write-in candidate, that ballot won't even be counted.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Right now the numbers I found in 34 states, so it's most of them, are like what Sue was saying. You have to file as a write-in candidate. Actually, I saw a headline today from the Charlotte News Observer that said North Carolina write-in votes won't count unless they're for Jill Stein because Jill Stein has registered as a write-in candidate.

So if you vote for - if you write her in in North Carolina, then, yeah, it will count. Nine states prohibit write-in voting. And the remainder, you can write in whoever you want.

DETROW: You can write in Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, well, interestingly, some states, some jurisdictions will release who all the write-in votes were for. I found a list from New York in 2012. There were two write-ins for Vladimir Putin. One was spelled right. One was spelled horrendously wrong.


KURTZLEBEN: There was one for my cat Ginger (ph). There was one for we can run things better ourselves. It's just - it's all over the place. And it depends on your state so...

DAVIS: And that was clearly voters who just wanted to make themselves feel better.



DETROW: Probably the most successful write-in candidacy was Lisa Murkowski's, right?


DAVIS: Yeah. Lisa Murkowski is a Republican senator from Alaska who, in 2010, lost her primary and in response, mounted a write-in campaign for November. And particularly because the Murkowski's were so well-known in Alaska, kind of like the Kennedys in Massachusetts, she mounted a successful write-in campaign and came back to win. Only two senators in the history of this country have been able to do that.

The other one was Strom Thurmond.


DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: And she won by a wide margin, so it was irrelevant, but I remember wondering at the time if enough people had spelled the name wrong, would have...

DAVIS: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Elected officials - if you spelled it with a Y or something, would election officials have been like, oh, I don't know, that doesn't count for her?

DAVIS: And that's part of - and part of the rules about write-in ballots too that even - I wonder even about Jill Stein's...



DAVIS: ...'Cause there's a lot of different ways to spell Stein, Right?



DAVIS: So if it's spelled wrong, that could be a contested ballot, although I don't think Jill Stein is going to be in contention for the presidency. So it probably won't matter.

KURTZLEBEN: Interesting.

DETROW: All right...

KURTZLEBEN: I guess Mike Krzyzewski (ph) can't run for - can't run as a write-in candidate.


SIEGEL: That was NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, Susan Davis and Scott Detrow. You can hear more from the NPR Politics Podcast team with daily episodes until November 8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.