If you’ve got a mailbox, chances are that at this point in the election season, it’s stuffed with campaign literature. You might be so sick of it that you’re considering writing in your own candidate on Election Day. It’s a whimsical way to show dissatisfaction with the candidates who are running.
“I always thought you could write in Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, whoever you wanted and the poor folks down at the Department of Elections would dutifully copy that name down,” says Bud Ryerson, one of several real write-in candidates running this election. “Turns out that’s not the case, at least not in San Francisco.”
Ryerson is in his fifties with rectangular glasses, longish grey hair, and a warm smile. He lives in Bernal Heights and is running as a write-in candidate for his supervisor seat in District 9. He’s got just one issue.
“My campaign is a referendum on the vote that David Campos made to reinstate Sheriff Mirkarimi,” he says, referring to the current District 9 supervisor’s vote not to remove Ross Mirkarimi from his office after an ethics scandal. “I see that vote as enabling domestic abuse, and I don’t think the residents of San Francisco can tolerate that.”
The rules for write-ins depend on the type of election. Would-be presidential candidates have to get on the ballot in every state. To run for state offices, write-ins have to start in the June primaries. And in local races, someone like Bud Ryerson needs to make sure he does all the right paperwork. Dave MacDonald, the registrar of voters across the Bay in Alameda County. The write-in process there is the same as in San Francisco. First, he says, candidates have to declare their candidacy. Bud Ryerson says that part was fairly onerous.
“They dropped 200 pages of written material on me that I had to read, and forms that I had to fill out and pledges that I had to take and oaths that I had to swear to,” he says.
The next step, says MacDonald, is to gather signatures. Ryerson needed at least 20. There’s no filing fee for write-ins – their statements aren't included in the sample ballot, and their names aren't printed, so the fee, which can be up to a thousand dollars, is waIved. (Write-ins also get a free webpage on smartvoter.org.)
“People were surprisingly happy to help me with my candidacy,” Ryerson said. “They understood they didn't have to vote for me, they were just furthering the democratic process.”
“It’s tough for a write-in candidate to get enough votes to win,” says MacDonald. “But certainly every election we have a few.”
It is possible for write-ins to win – Jerry McNerney won as a write in candidate for 11th Congressional District primary race, back in 2004 – but normally the chances aren’t good. The reasons people do it get back to what Ryerson said about the democratic process.
“I hated the idea of not voting,” said Sonja Trauss, another local write-in. The 30-year-old, middle-school math teacher in El Cerrito, is running for the BART board in District 7 – a position she didn’t even know was electable until she looked for the candidate promising lower fares, and didn't find one.
“I hate not voting in these tiny elections, because no one votes in them, but it’s so much more worthwhile than the big elections,” Trauss said. “I want to vote for what I want!”
Candidates for the BART board don’t need signatures to qualify as a write-in candidate. Trauss said the whole filing process took her about a half hour.
Ryerson and Trauss haven’t been big spenders. Ryerson’s spent roughly $60, about half on DVDs of David Campos’s speech voting to reinstate Mirkarimi.
“I was advised to get my message into Spanish and Chinese,” Ryerson says, adding, “I really don’t know anything about Chinese, so I put it in Google, and it came out in Chinese. I think it’s pretty close, but I need somebody to spellcheck it for me, kind of give it the test before I start putting up posters in Chinese that I don’t know what they say.”
Trauss has also spent about $60, mostly on paper and ink. She said she was surprised that there weren’t more write-in candidates.
“The thing is that running a write-in candidacy is basically free, except for promotion,” she says. “And promotion is cheaper and cheaper with the Internet.”
Trauss says she thought people didn’t know being a write-in was an option, but that it can be used as a valuable political tool.
“You can turn any election into a referendum,” she says. “If you have a one-issue candidate, anybody who votes for that candidate, it’s really clear. Look at this! 3,000 people believe this thing.”
Neither write-in candidate thinks they have much of a shot of winning, but they're voting for something they believe in, and hoping to give voters that chance, too.