POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Write-in Is Right-on! (Part Two)

by David Trumbull -- October 1, 2010

Kudos, again, to GOP candidate for Attorney General, James P. McKenna, who got 27,711 “sticker” or “write-in” votes in the September 14th Republican Primary Election. Running as a sticker candidate—at least now-a-days—is a staggeringly difficult task. Few even attempt it for a statewide office requiring 10,000 write-in votes to be successful. According to published reports, Mr. McKenna is the second such successful statewide sticker candidate since the 1970s. I looked but have not discovered the name of that other successful write-in candidate of recent decades. The level of voter dissatisfaction with the incumbent Martha Coakley is demonstrated by the fact that another Republican sticker candidate, Guy A. Carbone, came in just shy of the 10,000 write-in votes!

In these times, when “candidates for office” is defined, in the minds of many voters, as the names printed on the ballot, it is remarkable that nearly 40,000 Bay State voters went to the extra step of carrying a sticker to the polling place or writing in a name. The true number of voters who could not tolerate Ms. Coakley facing no opposition in November is much higher than that number indicates. The space on the ballot to affix the sticker or write in a name was so small that even party activists who understand how stickers work found it difficult to exercise their right to vote for the person they wanted. Furthermore, in many places, such as Boston, it wasn’t enough to get the sticker in the right place (which practically required using a magnifying glass and tweezers), you also had to remember to fill in an oval indicating to the ballot-reading machine that you had voted for a write-in candidate. Furthermore, any voter—including many unenrolled voters who might wish to have a Republican on the ballot in November—who choose to vote in the Democratic primary were denied any opportunity to put a name on the November ballot for AG.

It wasn’t always this way! As late at the 1960s write-in candidates were not so unusual in Massachusetts. In 1964 Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., with over 70,000 write-in votes, defeated declared presidential candidates Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller. In 1960 both major party nominees won the Massachusetts Presidential Preference Primary Election as write-in candidates. John F. Kennedy received 91,607 write-in votes in the Democratic Primary and Richard M. Nixon got 53,164 write-in votes in the GOP Primary, according to the John F. Kennedy President Library and Museum.

Historically, going back before the 1890s, all candidates in American elections were write-ins. Most historians trace the paper ballot with names of candidates printed by the government back to developments in Australia in the 1850s. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th Edition (1910) Massachusetts, in 1888, was first state to pass a law adopting the “Australian Ballot.”

The liberal weekly journal The Nation (#1181, Feb. 16, 1888 and #1186, March 22, 1888) praised Massachusetts for adoption of the Australian Ballot. The ballot presents the voter with a printed choice of candidates limited to those who have satisfied the government’s requirements to be candidates. It was one of the early victories of the progressives who went on to give us the income tax, prohibition of intoxicating spirits, and other measures that transferred power from the people to the government.

Prior to 1888 the government had no say at all in whom the people voted for. Voting was done by dropping into the ballot box a paper on which the voter had written his choice, or where a candidate or party had printed the names.

Perhaps tens of the thousands of voters writing in Mr. McKenna is beginning of reclaiming the right of the people to vote for whom they want, not for the few that the government decides to print on the ballot.

[David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee. Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.]