Do States Count Write-In Votes Legally?

It's been a messy election, to say the least, and many people report being frustrated with both major-party presidential candidates. Many Americans are looking beyond the Republican and Democratic nominee and considering a vote for a third-party or write-in candidate. Some have decided to cast protest votes for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, who until recently were the only well-known third party candidates. Some may write in other members of the two major parties. After Donald Trump's hot mic tape was released, many Republicans have stated their intention to write in his running mate, Mike Pence. Some Bernie-or-bust Democrats may write in the Vermont senator's name.

Recently, independent candidate Evan McMullin has made headlines for his strong showing in Utah polls. McMullin identifies as a Republican, but is running as an independent in an attempt to provide Republicans with an alternative to Trump. McMullin is on the ballot in 34 states, but is eligible as a write-in candidate in many more. #NeverTrump Republicans hope McMullin can win Utah and force a situation in which neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton meet the necessary 270 electoral vote threshold.

Voting for a candidate who isn't on the ballot is a tricky situation, though, because how those votes are counted and considered vary significantly by state.

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In some states, like Arizona, votes for write-in candidates only count if the candidate is "official" — that is, if he or she previously registered with the state election board and submitted a slate of electors. In many such states, votes for an unofficial candidate — whether it's Ted Cruz or Mickey Mouse — are not counted at all. In others, they are literally "counted," meaning that the votes are tallied, but they do not "count," meaning even a majority of votes for the candidate would not result in election.

A few states count any write-in candidates, and a few others ban them entirely, but overall, the mosaic of laws makes it difficult to imagine that any write-in candidate could obtain the necessary 270 electoral votes to become president, though it is possible that a write-in candidate could win if the House of Representatives were to determine the election. Given the current Republican majority in the House, this may be good news for Trump, or even McMullin or Johnson, but not for the small group of Bernie Sanders supporters hoping to elect their favorite candidate through a write-in campaign.

If you're considering a write-in vote or a protest vote — though my colleague Lani Seelinger might try to dissuade you — you should be sure to verify your state's rules for write-in candidates at the National Association of Secretaries of State or with your local election officials.