Why are ballot clerks banging their heads against the table? Joking write-in votes. 

  • Mickey Mouse and Jane Doe stand out. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Vermin Supreme 1 made it on to all three on this Republican primary ballot. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • They had so many write-ins, they had to use an extra piece of paper for the Primary. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Clint Eastwood write-in. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Wolverine is an interesting write-in candidate. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor Staff
Monday, November 07, 2016

Well over half a million people are going to walk into New Hampshire polling places Tuesday, and the state’s thousands of ballot-counters would like them to keep something in mind: Tom Brady is not running for office in New Hampshire, nor is Mickey Mouse, nor is, in all likelihood, your mother.

Election workers have advice for you: don’t write them in.

“I wish voters would think about the people who have been there all day long and have to treat the write-in like a real write-in,” said Dawn Blackwell, the town clerk of Epsom who has been helping run elections for two decades. “It makes it longer for the rest of us who have been there all day long – usually a very long day.”

Writing in a non-candidate’s name to protest lack of quality selections is a time-honored practice even though it’s unclear exactly whom the protest is aimed at, since only a couple of people ever see the vote. Regardless of whether it’s effective, however, the protest seems likely to be as popular as ever this presidential election, and ballot officials are preparing to bear the burden.

State law takes all write-in votes very seriously, whether for Henry Cabot Lodge (who won the 1964 GOP presidential primary as a write-in) or players in the Deflategate flap.

“We had Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and everyone. The state requires that all of them are written down and reported,” said Mridula Naik, town clerk in Bow, looking back on the the September party primary. She turned in four pages of write-in names to the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office that night, as required by law.

The tallying of write-ins doesn’t begin until all of the regular votes have been counted, either by AccuVote ballot optical readers or by hand counting. Depending on how busy the election has proved to be – and this presidential election is likely to be very busy – that means it starts after many election officials have already been at the polls for 12 hours.

It’s a labor-intensive process. At each polling place, a group of ballot clerks, checklist supervisors and other officials, plus any volunteers charged with helping by the moderator, take every ballot that has any write-in and start working.

“There are times when the write-in is illegible or incomplete – but we tally everything as necessary,” Hopkinton Town Clerk Charles Gangel wrote in an email.

“We have people in groups of two who work on different races. We have a tally sheet; one of them reads it out loud and one of them writes it down,” said Naik. “It’s late, it’s Election Night, sometimes you can’t read the writing.”

And what happens when they encounter a silly, joking write-in? They proceed, although perhaps not without a sigh of frustration.

“If they’re writing in a real candidate, of course. But if they’re writing in Mickey Mouse, they’re wasting everyone’s time; they’re not taking the election process seriously,” said Naik.

It can lead to a lot of wasted time. At the recent party primary, for example, Bow had so many write-ins that the list overflowed the forms given by the state.

For this election, the secretary of state’s office has taken some pity on people performing that late-night effort. On Tuesday, when polling place officials send their election-night tally to the state offices in Concord, they don’t have to list write-ins who received five votes or fewer. Those write-ins do have to be added to the official record, which is known as the “return of votes,” but at least your polling clerks won’t have to stay up until 2 a.m., peering at people’s scribbles to decide whether Bill Belicheck, Bill Bilechek and Bill Ballechek should all be counted as the same person.

For voters who really want to register their discontent with the system, here’s a suggestion: If you don’t like any of the candidates in a particular race, register dismay by not voting for anybody at all. Leave the race blank and move on to the next one.

This reaction will be recorded, indirectly. Say that 1,000 ballots were cast at a polling place but only 950 votes were registered for a particular office. This will indicate that 50 people were dissatisfied with the choices, a real rebuke to political officials which might make them think twice next time.

If nothing else, it’s certainly a better indication of voter sentiment than a list saying: “Daffy Duck (1), Gronk (1), my mom (3).”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)