It took just 222 voters in central Virginia to change the disposition of the state Senate — and the direction of the commonwealth — when Republicans nabbed control of the higher house in Richmond during last week’s election.
It was a reminder that in a representative democracy every vote counts. Unless those votes were for Kermit T. Frog, Curious George or Elmer Fudd, each of whom received one write-in endorsement to represent Alexandria’s 45th District in Virginia’s House.
“If someone writes in ‘hot fudge sundae,’ we don’t do anything with that,” said Tom Parkins, Alexandria’s registrar of voters. “If there’s a probability that the name could be real, it’s recorded, but if it’s obviously not a person, we don’t record anything.”
State law dictates write-ins are only recorded if they total 5 percent of the vote in a given race. It occurred in the 45th District where 710 Alexandrians decided they would rather see someone named Anyone Else, George Clooney or Tea Party represent them than Del. David Englin, the newly re-elected Del Ray Democrat who ran unopposed.
Of the 710 write-ins, 110 were deemed invalid, Parkins said.
But some names were legitimate. City Counciman Frank Fannon, former Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland and Englin’s one-time challenger Mark Allen, all Republicans, were the top write-in vote getters despite their nonparticipation in the race. Former Democratic City Councilman Justin Wilson, Pat Troy and Chris Marston, who ran for clerk of the circuit court, received four write-ins each.
Like most write-in “candidates,” Fannon was flattered. He received 14 votes for a seat he didn’t campaign for — and didn’t want. But he believes they counted for something if not toward changing the election’s outcome.
“People like to have options and choices,” Fannon said. “It’s about people making a statement.”
Fannon says he’s happy sitting on the city council and doesn’t view his write-in popularity as a litmus test to run for a state seat.
Wilson had similar feelings. He laughed after learning voters had typed his name four times. It wasn’t the first occurrence. He garnered a few write-in votes for last year’s congressional election as well, despite focusing solely on his family and nonpolitical career, he said. But he’s uninterested.
“The last thing I ever want to do is go down to Richmond,” he said. “I’m strongly supportive of David [Englin] and happy he was re-elected.”
So what’s the point of write-ins if even legitimate politicos treat their votes as a novelty?
In an actual contest, write-in votes can play the role of spoiler. A voter may endorse himself or others out of apathy, which seems to have happened often in the 45th District race. The tactic effectively takes votes away from the candidates. The 17th District race that gave Republicans total control in Richmond could have been decided by write-in voters who disliked both candidates, hypothetically. But a contentious race seems to eliminate the desire for write-ins: only about 0.2 percent opted for a write-in in the 17th District.
In a one-candidate race write-in votes are more about spurning a candidate than electing one, more about fatalistic expression than creating change, particularly in a one-party stronghold like Alexandria.
“You can have your voice heard through your vote … and in open government, when you write in a name, that’s having your voice being heard,” Fannon said.