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Published September 17 2012

Political write-in candidates face tough odds

FARGO – In the voting booth, the pen is seldom mightier than the political establishment.

Running for office as a write-in candidate is an uphill battle that doesn’t usually end in a victory speech. Many voters don’t know you exist. Election officials may not count every vote intended for you.

And in a best-case scenario, you might capture a few percentage points of the vote in a statewide race.

“Basically, a write-in campaign is an impossible campaign,” said Roland Riemers, a Grand Forks man who is a veteran of write-in races.

But that hasn’t stopped him and other write-in warriors eager to send a message from throwing their names in the ring – and hoping voters have some idea how to spell them.

Riemers, a libertarian, will appear on the ballot as a gubernatorial candidate this November.

But he’s competed as a write-in candidate in various past races and is no stranger to the lessons of those campaigns.

First and foremost, he said, voters need to know where to find you – or rather, where not to look.

“You’ve got to tell people, ‘Hey, you’re not on the ballot,’ ” he said.

Then they have to be able to get in the ballpark of the spelling of your name. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but election officials have to be able to determine intent.

“If they can make out who it is, if it’s misspelled, you can’t not count it,” said Lee Ann Oliver, an election specialist with the North Dakota secretary of state’s office.

At one time, write-in candidates could give supporters stickers bearing their names to place directly on the ballot. But that’s no longer allowed because it causes errors in newer ballot-reading machines.

Write-in candidates in both Minnesota and North Dakota also must register with the state. Deadlines range from a few days to a few weeks before the election, depending on the race.

In Minnesota, 13 people are currently registered as write-in candidates for statewide office. Half are running for president; the rest are a mix of state and federal offices.

In North Dakota, two people have registered: DuWayne Hendrickson, a Minot man running for the state’s U.S. House seat, and Eugene Dumont, a Fargo man running for U.S. Senate.

Dumont, a Vietnam veteran and retired truck driver and mechanic, also ran for Fargo City Commission in 2008.

He said he wants to shake things up because he thinks the Democrat and Republican candidates in the race are too similar and refuse to work together on the issues.

“It just makes me so sick that if I didn’t run, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” he said.

His resources are meager: Most of his campaigning comes from driving around his 1983 Chevrolet to whatever parades he can get into. One side is dirty to represent his view of Congress; the other is clean to represent his values.

And his odds are slim: Just two people in U.S. history have won Senate races as write-in candidates, and both well-established politicians.

But even if he can’t win, “if I talk to one or two people and they change their vote, maybe I accomplished something,” he said.

Candidates in smaller nonpartisan races have a better shot. Bryce Haugen, a Moorhead man, is running as a write-in candidate for the Clay County Commission.

Haugen ran for the city’s school board two years ago and won a seat after his name appeared on the ballot even though he had dropped out of the race. He declined to accept the seat.

As a write-in candidate, he said, “people have to be extra motivated to actually vote for me.”

He said winning as a write-in candidate is more meaningful in that respect.

“You’ve really earned it,” he said.

Riemers, the gubernatorial candidate, is suing to get both the Democratic and Republican candidates removed from the ballot on technical grounds.

But even if that happens, both would still be heavily favored as write-in candidates, he said.

“They have the resources to do it.”

He said he sometimes wonder if it would be better for democracy to conduct every race as a write-in.

“It would just open up the campaign quite a bit more,” he said. “People would actually have to know who they’re voting for.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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