In 2004, surfer and city council member Donna Frye ran a write-in campaign for mayor of San Diego. She had five weeks until Election Day when she launched her campaign, and her two rivals were significantly better funded than she was. She bought no TV time and no outdoor advertising.
But Donna Frye almost, almost won. She raked in over 155,000 of the city of San Diego's 600,000 registered voters, convincing them to ignore the two names on the ballot, one of them belonging to the incumbent mayor, and write in hers instead. As Lisa Murkowski heads into her last-minute write-in candidacy for the Senate seat she currently holds, Donna Frye is a mandatory study -- both for what to imitate and what to avoid.
Frye lucked out with an incumbent mayor who'd suffered a serious scandal regarding the city's pension fund just months before the city's nonpartisan primary. Frye was a vocal critic of the pension issue, raising her profile among city residents. She was also already a well-known community figure, thanks both to her city council member status and the popular surf shop she owned with her husband, legendary surfer Skip Frye. Her compelling personal story -- surfer turned activist turned mayoral candidate facing off against two old Republican guys -- caught on in the national media, and Frye received large amounts of free publicity.
Her campaign distributed fliers and brochures explaining how to write her name on the ballot and fill in the corresponding box. On Election Day, campaign workers stood outside major polling stations with signs reminding voters to write in her name.
"There was no one that was more stunned than I was when we started seeing the election results," says Frye, who wasn't expecting to win. "I've been here since the '50s, so a lot of people already knew me, just because I'm old, I guess." She laughs a big, throaty laugh. "And I was giving people a choice that they didn't have; they liked that."
Parts of this story are similar to Murkowski's, and parts couldn't be more different. Like Frye, Murkowski has extensive name recognition in Alaska; she's a known quantity. But Frye's reputation as a political outsider challenging a corrupt establishment was more similar to that of Joe Miller, the Tea Party insurgent who defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary. Frye also benefited from running against two Republicans who split the conservative vote, while Murkowski could potentially split Alaska's GOP vote and hand the seat to Democrat Scott McAdams.
What ultimately did Frye in were the persnickety logistics of the write-in process. Ballots did not include instructions to fill in the box alongside the write-in line, and many voters who wrote in her name did not. Frye lost those votes, and those that misspelled her name -- "Fry" was a common mistake. On top of all that, the city's write-in laws were different from the county's, which opened up a can of law suits.
While Murkowski doesn't have to worry as much about spelling -- misspelled variations of her name will be counted as long as the voter's intent is clear -- scrawling "Lisa" on the ballot won't be enough (though "Lisa M" could be sufficient). Voters will need to fill in the all-important oval next to the write-in line in order for their votes to be counted. Passing out stickers that voters can paste on their ballots, an option that recently helped launch a challenger to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley onto the state's ballot, is illegal in Alaska.
Murkowski is already tuned into the oval issue. Her campaign kick-off event had the theme of "Write in her name and fill in the oval." She is also in the midst of switching up her campaign leadership.
Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News and an expert on write-in candidacies, thinks Murkowski has a shot. "Joe Miller used to look like the big rebel and the way people could revolt against the status quo, but now she is so audacious, she looks like the more daring way to rebel," Winger says. "She's the more populist option now."
Frye has followed Murkowski's trials a bit via TV news. "I would tell her to keep the faith," Frye says, "and keep a good sense of humor. I would just say don't give up. Don't give up what she's trying to do. Whether she's a Democrat or a Republican, I believe that she's doing the right thing and I applaud her for it."
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