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Home People Gritty, Elmo and Mayor McCheese for Congress — why do people throw their votes away on write-ins?

Gritty, Elmo and Mayor McCheese for Congress — why do people throw their votes away on write-ins?

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Why would a voter write in “my butt” for Congress instead of choosing between Rep. Tom Malinowski and Tom Kean Jr. in the 7th District House race?

A variation on this question has bugged me since 2016, when I wrote about a surge of New Jersey voters casting write-in ballots for president rather than voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Write-ins that year ranged from obvious protest votes like Sen. Bernie Sanders to … less obvious ones like Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine. Or both: Someone in Kearny wrote in Evan McMullin for president and Dat boiiiiiiiiiii for vice president.

In 2020, the popularity of write-in votes took a dive. Something about the prior four years made people rethink casting a ballot just for the lulz maybe, I dunno.

This month’s election was a mid-term, so there were fewer voters and fewer write-ins. Still, we saw a vote for Homer Simpson in the 1st District House race, “Technical Difficulties” in the 2nd, and “Weird Al” Yankovic in the 11th. God was a write-in in the 5th and, yep, “Your Mom” in the 7th. A New Jersey tradition.

I’ve always thought of voting as being an important part of being a citizen, and if I don’t like either major candidate, I opt for the one I hate the least and hope for the best.

I get why people who feel our political system is broken would skip voting altogether — but why take the time to go to a polling place, or fill out a mail-in ballot, if you’re going to write in “Bozo” instead of voting for either Rep. Josh Gottheimer or challenger Frank Pallotta? That’s a real write-in, out of Vernon.

I asked Jon Krosnick about this — he’s a professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University. He said Americans regularly get the message that they have to vote no matter what — that democracy hinges on widespread public participation — so when faced with a choice they don’t like, they feel like they must do something, even if it’s write in Elmo for Congress, as one Bayonne voter did.

“Not voting would take less time and effort, but not voting would be skirting one’s citizen duty and would not send the message of dissatisfaction with the candidates that a protest vote would,” Krosnick said.

OK, so this makes sense. If I’m going to get peer pressured into voting, I’ll vote for who I damn well please, like Alan Smithee, the pseudonym that film directors use when they want to take their name off a project (Smithee was a House write-in out of Readington).

Not all write-ins are strictly jokes. There are plenty of political statements being sent:

  • “Any independent” in the 2nd District.
  • “Free Palestine” in the 5th.
  • “Lower Taxes” in the 7th.
  • “Baby nepotism” in the 8th, where Rob Menendez Jr. — son of Sen. Bob Menendez — won his first term in Congress. Another Hudson County voter wrote in Bobby Newport, the character from “Parks and Recreation” that expected to win a run for local office solely because his dad was rich and famous. A political statement and a jokey pop culture reference in one.
  • “Pro-choice, gun control now” in the 11th.

Korsnick said voters who cast protest write-ins may be interested in voting because of another contest — maybe they have a friend running for council or school board — and figure, why not send a message in one of these other races while I’m at it?

“Voters are not told that they can cast a valid ballot without voting in all races, so some voters may feel that they need to vote somehow in all races in order for their ballot to be counted,” he said.

So that may explain why someone wrote in “NJ Parole Sux” in the 1st district, Michael Jordan in the 2nd, and Ron Swanson in the 7th. There were a lot of Donald Trump write-ins, a bunch for Mickey Mouse, a few for Liz Cheney. Someone in the 10th — Rep. Donald Payne Jr.’s district — wrote in “Not Donald Payne.”

George Marcus, a professor emeritus of political science at Williams College, made another good point: Many voters know that in noncompetitive races, their votes aren’t as important as they are in close contests (as a longtime resident of Rep. Bill Pascrell’s district, then Payne’s, I feel this).

“So why not a moment of levity, despair, or carefree jocularity?” Marcus said.

That, more than anything, explains one Raritan person’s vote for Gritty for Congress.

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