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AFP InDepth | How to win a write-in campaign

Sally Thomas knew well the conventional wisdom about write-in campaigns – “which is that a write-in candidate can’t win.”

But Thomas and a group of friends opposing the planned Route 29 Western Bypass decided that it was worth the fight.

“A bunch of us decided that somebody had to step forward and try to run,” said Thomas, who volunteered her name for the 1993 race for the open seat on the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors representing the Samuel Miller District.

Thomas’ 192-vote win is a local example of how write-in campaigns like the one being waged by Jim Serba for the city-treasurer job in Waynesboro can be won.

The deck is stacked against a write-in candidate, of course.

“It’s one thing to have someone recognize your name when they see it. It’s another to have them remember your name when they go in to vote. Especially if you have a situation where maybe this isn’t the election that’s the most on their mind right now,” said Isaac Wood at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

And a city-treasurer race isn’t going to be at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds heading into the Nov. 3 elections, at least at first glance. Hotly contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general also have the attention of voters in Waynesboro.

Complicating things for Serba is the presence of not one, but two opponents on the ballot – incumbent Treasurer Sandee Dixon and Stephanie Beverage.

Candidates already on the ballot have a natural advantage.

“It’s hard for people to remember, OK, I’ve got to write this guy’s name in down here, especially because they don’t have a visual cue on the ballot to remind them. You don’t have something to look at to remind you, That’s the guy. You actually have to cement it in your mind,” Wood said.

The way Thomas worked around that issue in 1993 was a stroke of inspiration.

“We had pencils created that had my name on them. There was some question as to whether you could have them in the voting booth with you, but in those days you had to have a pencil in order to write in,” said Thomas, explaining the strategy that had the campaign not only working on getting Thomas’ name out there and giving voters a sense of what the candidate stood for and why she was running, but also taking care of the nuts and bolts related to basically teaching people how to cast a write-in vote.

Serba and a team of volunteers are working that angle by distributing flyers that include detailed instructions on how they can cast a write-in vote to voters in Waynesboro.

“The big thing for us now is how to do a write-in. The more flyers I can get out with the instructions on how to do that, the better,” Serba said.

As much as the deck is stacked against Serba in his run, he has one thing working for him, in Wood’s view. The recent media attention on Dixon’s string of negative audits from local and state auditors and questions raised in the local media on a 1997 Beverage bankruptcy filing could leave the door open for Serba.

“The way that write-in candidates usually win are in circumstances of scandal, where something has changed between the time when candidates’ names were being placed on the ballot and the time of the election. That is the one time that write-in candidates actually have a shot,” Wood said.


– Story by Chris Graham

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