Sen. Lisa Murkowski is expected to announce Friday night that she plans to run for re-election in Alaska as a write-in candidate. According to the New York Times, her aides have been considering the implications of asking voters to spell Murkowski on the ballot. Just how egregiously can you distort a write-in candidate's name before election officials discount your vote?
It's up to whoever counts the votes. Most states—including Alaska—don't have hard-and-fast criteria for determining whether a certain spelling is acceptable. Instead, they use a subjective model wherein election officials must attempt to decipher whom, exactly, each voter intended to elect. For example, California law states that the spelling must bear "a reasonable resemblance to the qualified candidate's name" (PDF) and that "no other write-in candidate … has a name so similar to the name as written in as to leave reasonable doubt as to the voter's intention." (In Alaska, the elections director has said that Lisa M. would pass muster as a stand-in for Lisa Murkowski, but that Lisa on its own might cause problems.) There's rarely controversy over these decisions, as write-in candidates aren't usually strong contenders to begin with.
There are exceptions. A 2002 mayoral election in Mount Airy, Md., ended up in court when 259 votes for write-in candidate James S. Holt were disqualified. The ballots did not contain accepted variations on the spelling of his name that had been pre-decided by a board of supervisors and agreed to by Holt. His supporters sued, claiming they were neither told about the accepted variations nor given guidance at the polling station. A county judge overturned the result, ordering that Holt be sworn in as mayor.
Similar issues have arisen in elections for national office. In 2006, a dermatologist named Shelley Sekula-Gibbs became an official write-in candidate to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Most of the voters in her Texas district cast their ballots using an electronic machine called the Hart InterCivic eSlate, which requires that you spell out a write-in candidate's name by using a dial to select letters from a full alphabet. The machines don't accept a hyphen, so Sekula-Gibbs removed the punctuation from her campaign materials. The eSlates were programmed to correct certain expected misspellings of her name, but more esoteric variations had to be reviewed. A bipartisan panel eventually came up with a 28-page list of acceptable aliases, including Kelly Segula Gibbs, Snelly Gibbr, Schikulla Gibbs, Sheila Gibbs, Shelly Schulla Gibbs, Shelly Gibkula, ShelleySkulaGibbsssss, and SSG. Variations on "Sekula" included Sektula, Sequila, Sedoko, Sedoka, and Shecola. The phrase "Shelly DraculaCunt Gibs" was also accepted by officials because the intent of the voter was deemed obvious.
To avoid confusion, some write-in candidates incorporate the spelling of their names into their campaign. They might hand out stickers for voters to affix to the ballot slip, for example. In the buildup to his historic 1954 victory as a write-in candidate for the Senate, South Carolina's Strom Thurmond distributed signature pencils with his name clearly etched on the side. Complications are more likely to arise when there is more than one registered write-in candidate, like during the 2002 District of Columbia mayoral race. Write-in candidacies were filed by both Willie F. Wilson and Anthony Williams, which prompted Anthony Williams' campaign to distribute rubber stamps to voters. (Stickers are not allowed on D.C. voting papers, but rubber stamps have been accepted since 1984.)
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Explainer thanksChristian Adams of the Election Law Center in Virginia, Nathaniel Persily of the Columbia Law School, and Dan Tokaji of the Election Law Center at the Ohio State University.