In Pittsburgh’s November mayoral election, there was one candidate on the ballot. And predictably, that candidate, incumbent Democrat Bill Peduto, claimed 95.9 percent of the vote or roughly 40,000 votes total.
It’s safe to assume that most of these voters cast their ballots because they genuinely like the guy. It’s also safe to assume that some saw no other viable option … because there wasn’t one. And then there’s the other 4 percent.
Because Peduto’s was the only name on the ballot, the 4 percent that voted against him did so via write-in, manually entering things like “Anthony Bourdain,” fan favorite “Phil Kessel,” “Bag of Shit” and “No more bicycle lanes.” It’s a sarcastic and rather passive form of political protest.
There were also dozens who wrote in comparatively feasible names like Council Members Corey O’Connor and Darlene Harris, the latter of whom unsuccessfully ran against Peduto in the most recent Democratic primary.
In other cases, actual write-in campaigns were waged.
Emily Fear’s earned her dozens of votes for mayor on Election Day after just weeks of groundwork. That’s dozens of people who took the time to go to the polls and write in the name of the teen services librarian without a spot on the ballot and with only an infinitesimal chance of actually winning. (Perhaps more relevant, Fear is also on the Steering Committee with the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.)
Conventional wisdom has it that write-in votes like these are throwaways. But this wasn’t true in Wall, Glenview and Haysville, where there were no candidates for mayor on the Nov. 7 ballot and where handfuls of write-in votes decided the whole thing. It also wasn’t true of Republican U.S. Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski’s election win in 2010.
But, yes, generally speaking, write-ins for Phil Kessel won’t see him anointed mayor. And yet there his name is, year after year, among the slew of irreverent and often profane choices manually entered by voters.
The Washington Post once called the write-in vote the “the last refuge of an alienated but committed electorate.” Jan Baran, an elections lawyer with the Washington firm Wiley Rein, told WaPo that many write-in voters do so either because “they don’t know what the rules are” or because it serves as “therapy of some sort.”
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne School of Law professor, told The Incline that voters typically cast write-ins because they are disappointed or at odds with the party nominees.
“It gives people a chance to express how dissatisfied they are. And, occasionally, as in the Alabama Senate race, it could have been utilized seriously.”
In Fear’s case, she told The Incline that she wanted to make a point about the viability of third party or unpartied candidates — as did many of the people who voted for her.
“In a conversation with a close relative, [the relative] expressed disbelief at the notion of independent candidates running against candidates in ‘established’ parties,” Fear said. “They basically said that grassroots efforts can’t compete with [the] power of the Democratic or Republican machines.”
Fear continued: “My relative said that I couldn’t get 100 votes. So I attempted to get 101.”
Fear got 66, according to a hand count of printouts provided by the Allegheny County Elections Office. But she insists this proves her point.
Hers was the third highest write-in total for mayor behind the 88 votes for Darlene Harris and the 68 votes for “Anyone Else,” which doesn’t include similar variations such as “Anybody else” or “Anyone but Peduto.” “Mickey Mouse” came away with 56 votes.
And while Mickey is certainly an example of the absurdist bent to all this, write-in votes can also be enlightening, a window into the priorities and grievances of voters and a snapshot of the municipal mood. As proof, this year’s city races included (single digit) write-ins for:
- “No Amazon”
- “No to Amazon”
- “No money for Bezos”
- “No privatized water/parks”
- “Fix PWSA”
- “Lower property taxes”
- “Not my mayor, MAGA”
“On the local level, I think it’s a way for many folks to express agency over the electoral process,” Fear said. “Those who are alienated from the party committee structure in Pittsburgh have the opportunity to interact directly with local politics when they go to the polls. […] Voting for write-ins becomes an expression of feelings that fall outside the mainstream avenues.”
This all may be a slightly romantic interpretation of a process that yielded votes in November for “These people suck” and “a glazed donut” and in which “Donald Trump” got nearly as many votes for Pittsburgh mayor as “Donald Duck.”
But if nothing else it confirms the underlying motivations. At least some of them.
In this year’s District 4 city council race, write-in votes were cast for Ashleigh Deemer, the candidate who lost in the Democratic primary to now councilman-elect Anthony Coghill. It was the only contested or contentious city council primary this year, and one with an outcome many Deemer supporters resented.
So in the weeks that followed, there was talk in small online circles about a write-in campaign against Coghill, though none was ever officially launched.
Still, about 75 people cast write-in votes for Deemer on Election Day, the highest write-in total for that race. By comparison, Coghill, whose name was actually on the ballot, got more than 4,000 votes.
Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said it’s in local races like these that write-in votes have the greatest potential impact.
“Very rarely do write-ins influence the outcome,” Madonna said before adding, “Now in local elections — municipal and school board elections — they can make a difference. History was made three years ago when Scott Wagner won a special state senate election as a write-in, that was a first in the history of the state.”
But before you write off the practice of write-in voting as almost entirely futile or foolhardy, remember that, as Madonna points out, write-in candidates can win — it’s just exceedingly rare.
Also remember that Pennsylvania is one of only a few states where write-in voting is largely unrestricted. This means that people can write in unregistered candidates and things like “Boaty McBoatface” for most races and still have their vote counted. (The Pennsylvania Department of State tells The Incline that in the case of a presidential race, “voters must write in the name of one of the write-in candidate’s electors, not the candidate’s name.”)
Most states require write-in candidates to be registered, while some states disallow write-in votes in certain races altogether. In this sense, Pennsylvania is one of the more progressive states in the nation — not everyday you get to say that.
And so you might argue that satirical write-in votes are just honoring that intent.
Someone might also argue that they’re largely beside the point and, aside from the occasional news article rounding them up, devoid of any lasting impact.
As it turns out, you’d both be right.