Write-in candidates are having a serious moment in WA

Some people might still be writing 'Batman' on their ballot, but real write-ins are getting extra attention thanks to a 2018 Washington law.

ballots at the King County processing center

Ballots at the King County processing center. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

In the past few weeks, some prominent write-in campaigns for the Nov. 8 general election in Washington have called attention to a little-known change to state law four years ago.

The “Access to Democracy” package of bills signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March 2018 included same-day voter registration, pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and the motor-voter law – all aimed at increasing voter participation – as well as a measure to increase candidate participation.

This story was inspired by reader questions and comments after the publication of an essay about write-in candidates in Crosscut's Elections newsletter.

Write-in candidates are now expected to register their candidacy for local and statewide races – both for the primary and general elections – and are allowed a statement in the voter guides produced by the state and local elections officials if they are one of the top-two winners in the primary. Plus, just like every other candidate, if they are one of the top-two vote-getters in the primary, they can be on the ballot officially for the General Election. Votes are counted only for write-in candidates who register.

A number of people have accomplished that feat in Washington this year. But the Secretary of State’s Office cannot say for sure if Washington is experiencing a bumper crop of successful write-in candidates, since they do not know of anyone tracking the system statewide. Most write-ins register with county elections offices.

Democrat Cameron Severns, who is running in the 25th Legislative District in Puyallup and surrounding Pierce County, joined that race as a write-in during the primary election after he noticed the incumbent, Republican Cyndy Jacobsen, was running unopposed. He followed the state rules for write-in candidates and earned enough votes to earn a place on the November ballot.

Another Democrat, Lindsey Keesling, is a write-in candidate who earned a place on the General Election ballot for the 15th Legislative District, south of Ellensburg and west of Richland, by becoming one of the top-two winners in the primary. The 15th is represented in the Legislature by three Republicans, and all three were running unopposed until Keesling joined the race. She registered as a write-in to take on Republican Nikki Torres for state Senate.

Katie Haven, chair of the Okanogan County Democrats, told Crosscut she’s heard of a number of successful write-ins who advanced to the general election this year, mostly from fellow party chairs in Central Washington.

“I think people would be interested in knowing that Democrats actually exist in the eastern half of the state and are making an effort,” Haven wrote in an email, noting that in many parts of Eastern Washington, only Republicans are on the ballot.

Another Democratic write-in in Eastern Washington is running for Walla Walla county commissioner, where the top-two vote-getters in the primary were both Republicans. Danielle Garbe Reser’s name will not be on the ballot or in the voter guide, so she is running what Haven called a “true write-in campaign.” And a successful one, as she has attracted both endorsements and donations to support her campaign.

A Republican candidate for Secretary of State, State Rep. Brad Klippert, has registered as a write-in candidate for the General Election for similar reasons. Voters picked a Democrat and an Independent in the primary and the Republican party didn’t want to see the office, which has been held by Republicans for decades, go to someone from another party.

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The Secretary of State’s Office, which is the state’s elections office, is not aware of anyone tracking how many people are running as write-in candidates under the new registration system. “This may be because of the newness of the system. Prior to three years ago, candidates didn’t have to file,” Derrick Nunnally, deputy director of external affairs, wrote in an email.

And no one is overtly tracking whether the new law has made it more likely for write-in candidates to be successful, but they do seem to be having a moment.

The most prominent recent write-in success story at the national level happened a decade ago when Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski became the first U.S. senator in more than 50 years to win an election with a write-in campaign. Murkowski ran a write-in campaign after she lost in the primary to a challenger from the right. She won the General Election by 10,000 hand-written votes.

Before Murkowski, the last person to win a seat in the U.S. Senate with write-in votes was Strom Thurmond in 1954. The Democratic incumbent unexpectedly died shortly before the General Election that year in South Carolina. A committee of party officials decided not to hold a special primary and instead just picked a new candidate to run. Following public outrage at that decision, 51-year-old former S.C. governor Strom Thurmond announced his intention to run as a write-in candidate as an Independent who would caucus with the Democrats. Thurmond, who later switched to the Republican Party, served 48 years in the U.S. Senate through 2003.

Washington has also seen some write-in winners in its history.

Republican Linda Smith was elected to Congress in 1994 as a write-in candidate from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District when she defeated Jolene Unsoeld and went on to serve two terms in Congress representing southwest Washington. Smith entered the primary after another Republican dropped out of the race in August. The former state lawmaker – and former Democrat – was part of a “red wave” that swept into the other Washington in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term.

New Washington state rules about write-ins allow candidates to fill out a form and officially join a race until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Write-ins who file more than 18 days before the election don’t have to pay a filing fee like regular candidates do.

An interesting note from this new section of state law: People don’t have to spell your name correctly when they hand-write their vote. That’s because Washington is what is called a voter-intent state, according to state law ,which says “the canvassing board shall exercise all reasonable efforts to determine the voter's intent.” One more interesting note about Washington state law: Candidates may not file as a write-in in the general election for a race they lost in the primary. This is called the “sore loser” law.

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