What would happen when a write-in candidate wins an election? What would happen in a presidential election, US congressional elections, and generally as you go further down ticket? What would happen if enough people pencilled in Jill Stein for president in states where she didn't qualify for the ballot, or Bernie Sanders after he has conceded the race? What would happen if someone who never expressed any interest in politics won, or a fictitious person won?

I imagine the myriad state and local jurisdictions all have their own elections rules but I'm hoping their rules are generally the same, so I'm looking for a general answer.

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    In the US presidential election the people don't vote the president but only the people who vote the president. The electors can then (theoretically) vote for whoever they want. So I wonder how a write-in candidate is supposed to work in the first place.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 24, 2016 at 1:53
  • @Philipp Actually, people do vote for the president, that's what's on the ballot. Stuff happens after that of course (and that's what this question is about) but there are ballots with a space for write-in candidates.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 19:50
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    Both Philipp and Relaxed are right. Technically, the states elect the President, not the people, according to the U.S. Constitution. Each State Legislature decides how their state's votes are allocated. In every instance, every state has decided by state law to give their state citizens the right to vote on how the state will vote. History books and politicians don't like stating it that way, but that is actually how it works. Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 9:37

2 Answers 2


As a general rule, write-in candidates have to register. So if you write in your own name, a fictional name, or an uninterested party's name in such a jurisdiction, election workers will typically ignore it. They also may choose to ignore misspellings. That was a bone of contention in Lisa Murkowski's successful write-in campaign in Alaska.

Note that registration may not be required everywhere. All federal offices have citizenship requirements that would preclude a fictional character from winning. In some jurisdictions, this might force a run-off vote. In others the second place finisher might win.

If someone won who did not want office, that person could refuse the honor.

There are no cases of successful write-in candidacies in the general election for president, so we don't know how electors would be handled. In some states, this might be part of the registration process. In Alaska though, it does not seem to be.

  • “honor”? It's not like bestowing a medallion. Commented May 23, 2018 at 1:14
  • Is there constitutional mechanism for the president-elect to decline the office, short of being inaugurated then stepping down? Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 18:32

Write-in candidates do sometimes win, especially in local elections where the number of votes is relatively small. If the winner is willing to take the office, they do, as if they'd had their name printed on the ballot. If they aren't willing or eligible, the person with the most votes who is willing and eligible would take the office instead (again, regardless of whether or not that person's name was printed on the ballots).

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