In an earlier Ask ELi column, we addressed the question “Why aren’t more people running for Council?” There are only three candidates for two open spots, an unusually low number of choices for East Lansing City Council.
Is it possible for a viable write-in candidate to emerge at this point? What would such a candidate have to do according to the law?
We asked Marie Wicks, City Clerk for East Lansing. She pointed us to the relevant section of Michigan Election Law and noted, “Such a candidate would have until 4:00 p.m. on Friday, October 27 to file a Declaration of Intent with my office to be a valid (emphasis on valid) write-in candidate. Absent the Declaration, a write-in would not be valid.”
In other words, even if a write-in candidate received enough votes to come in first or second in the election, she or he could not be sworn in to office if a Declaration of Intent was not filed correctly.
Wicks explains how the actual process would go at the voting booth: “If there are valid write-ins, election inspectors [the people paid to work at the polls] are not allowed to provide any names in the polling location. Rather, they can confirm the presence of valid write-ins but must direct voters to my office for specific names.” (Of course, voters can bring candidate names with them to polls.)
I mentioned to Wicks that, years ago, a School Board write-in candidate won and that voters had been given stickers to put on the ballot by the candidate. But this was before the days of the voting machines.
Wicks says that the Board of Elections indicates that “under NO circumstances should anyone apply a sticker to a ballot. This runs the risk of damaging our brand new machines and they could potentially be liable for the replacement cost.”
She adds, “Please do keep in mind, however, that workers are trained to recognize that various spellings may be used and will be counted.” She gave the example of “Robert Smith” running as a write-in and noted that such variations as Bob Smith and Rob Smith would count.
“If there are write-ins,” Wicks explains, “those ballots will automatically be diverted to a separate bin for tabulation after the close of the polls. Election inspectors will note each spelling of the name and tally by hash marks the total number of votes.”
What would Michigan campaign finance law require of a write-in candidate? For this, Wicks referred us to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.
Says Byrum, “A write-in candidate is subject to the same campaign finance laws as soon as they are considered a 'candidate'." When does a write-in candidate become a “candidate” by law? This is what Byrum enumerated for us:
- “An individual nominated at a primary through write-in votes that has not received or spent any funds in order to be elected becomes a candidate five days after the Board of Canvassers certifies the nomination.” (This would not apply in East Lansing Council elections because they are non-partisan seats without primary elections.)
- “An individual elected to office at an election through write-in votes that has not received or spent any funds in order to be elected becomes a candidate on the date the election is certified.” (In other words, as long as a write-in candidate has not received or spent any funds on his or her election, he or she doesn’t become a candidate for purposes of campaign finance law until after the election.)
- “An individual who receives a contribution, makes an expenditure, or gives consent for another person to receive a contribution or make an expenditure for the purpose of seeking write-in votes at an election is a candidate as soon as he or she receives the contribution or makes the expenditure or gives consent to the other person to receive the contribution or make the expenditure.” (So, if a candidate knowingly receives or has money spent for a write-in campaign, then she or he is immediately subject to campaign finance law.)
The County Clerk’s page provides information about how to follow campaign finance law.