Running as a Write-In: As Hard as It Sounds?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is reported to be considering running a write-in campaign in Alaska, and some sources have said she could announce such a run in the next few days. Her prospects of convincing a plurality of Alaskan voters to write her name at the bottom of their ballots seem unrealistic, and in reality, very few national candidates have won office this way -- only two senators and five congresspeople, and no one since 1982, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News.

Murkowski, however, would have a few advantages. She is extremely well-known in a state with relatively few people, so she could focus more of her money on explaining how voters could choose her and less on letting them know who she is. She also has a fair amount to spend, with over $1 million left in the bank after she lost the Republican primary to Joe Miller. Alaska's election protocol would smooth her efforts: it would allow voters to misspell her name as long as their intent is clear, and it provides a uniform voting experience that Murkowski could walk voters through.

The first candidate to win national office via a write-in campaign was Peter Francis Tague, a Massachusetts member of the House whose situation was not too dissimilar from Murkowski's. After Tague lost his Democratic primary by 50 votes in 1918, he ran as a write-in in the general election, which he lost by a narrow margin. He contested it, however, and ended up winning the seat.

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In 1954, Strom Thurmond became the last senator to have won his seat via write-in. Already well-known in South Carolina thanks to his stint as governor and his presidential run, Thurmond spotted his opportunity when the incumbent senator died suddenly. Murkowski is in a different position: she's an incumbent who, though caught off-guard by an insurgent, could use her write-in campaign to remind voters of what she's already done for them.    

Alaska has a relatively robust history of write-in candidacies, though not all of them successful. In 1968, incumbent Sen. Ernest Gruening lost his Democratic primary but managed to garner over 14,000 write-in votes in the general, coming in third (Mike Gravel won with 36,500 votes). In 1998, Robin Taylor mustered a solid showing of write-in votes for governor but ended up losing to Tony Knowles. "Alaskans know how to write in," Winger said. "If she really throws her heart into it, it seems to me she has a better than 50 to 50 chance."

One of Murkowski's biggest obstacles, should she decide to launch a write-in campaign, could be the very Republican establishment that once supported her. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has begun funneling funds to Miller, whom they endorsed after Murkowski conceded.

For Alex Keyssar, the Matthew W. Stirling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, this dynamic of party establishment pitted against independent candidate highlights a problem with today's party structure. He suggests looking at "why there's a need for write-in candidates at all, which has to do with the parties' capturing of ballot access, because for most of our history it wouldn't have been necessary. The need for write-in candidates is the result of a party structure that does not allow for independence."

If Murkowski decides to run as a write-in candidate and manages to pull off a win, she will set a historic example of a political fumble followed by a miraculous save. Even if she only manages a strong showing, Alaska 2010 will still be studied for its optimal conditions for write-in candidacies.