Election 2017

No, Darlene Harris can’t run for Pittsburgh mayor as a Republican

Neither can Phil Kessel or Daffy Duck: A lesson in Allegheny County write-in campaigns.

Political yard signs line W. North Ave. on the North Side outside of a polling station.

Political yard signs line W. North Ave. on the North Side outside of a polling station.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
MJ Slaby

Pittsburgh City Council member — and Mayor Bill Peduto foe — Darlene Harris didn’t get enough write-ins during the May 16 primary to become the Republican nominee for Pittsburgh mayor this November.

But she wasn’t checking.

Harris, who finished third with 13 percent of the vote in the Democratic mayoral primary, told The Incline that she saw several Facebook posts from supporters who were hopeful she could still run in November. But, she said, that was it. She didn’t have an organized write-in campaign and didn’t know of one on her behalf.

With write-ins tallied, Mark Wolosik, Allegheny County Elections Division manager, confirmed Friday that there will be no Republican candidate in the November race for mayor. (An Independent still has until August to join the ballot. Harris and John C. Welch, who was also on the Democratic ticket in May, can’t run as Independents.)

A write-in campaign allows a candidate to be added to the ballot between the primary and the general elections. Used as a political strategy, experts said it can increase a candidate’s chances of making it to the November ballot if they are already running. In some cases, it secures a chance of winning, should an Independent enter the field.

But without an organized campaign, write-ins are often a form of protest, said Sandi DiMola, associate professor of political science and chair of Justice Studies at Carlow University.

A candidate launching a write-in campaign isn’t unusual, especially in smaller municipalities, school board and judicial elections, where political party isn’t as important. But in the race for city mayor, it’s more difficult given the number of write-ins needed and the Democratic stronghold. It can happen, though. In 2009, Luke Ravenstahl won the Democratic primary and the Republican nod through write-in votes.

Harris, however, said she didn’t know how the write-in nominee process worked or how many votes she needed.

If you’re wondering, too, keep reading.

To become a Republican write-in candidate for Pittsburgh mayor, a potential candidate needs to be written in 250 times — the same number of signatures needed to run in the primary.

The Incline inspected write-in ballot totals that had already been tabulated by county election staff last week at the County Elections Division Office. At the time, 21 votes still needed to be verified, and the county updated The Incline with the rest of the vote totals Friday.

Harris had 229 write-ins by Republicans; primary winner and Mayor Bill Peduto received 228 write-ins; and Welch got 65.

Harris’ response to learning how close she came to the needed 250?

“That’s kinda funny,” she said with a smile, adding that it was “very nice” of people to vote for her. (P.S. Harris said she’ll run for mayor again “if need be” and has “no reason not to” run again for city council in 2019.) 

So you want to be a write-in nominee

Most of the time, write-in nominees had a campaign to be cross-nominated, Wolosik said. But the process isn’t as simple as finding the write-in with the most votes.

Step 1: How many votes do you need?

A candidate’s total write-in votes need to be equal to or more than the number of signatures needed to run. For Pittsburgh mayor, that’s 250. For Pittsburgh City Council, it’s 100. For borough, town and township offices, it’s 10.

Step 2: Wait until the polls close.

Running a write-in campaign is difficult, said Joseph Sabino Mistick, an associate law professor at Duquesne University and political commentator. Not only does a candidate have to convince voters to pick them, but there’s an educational aspect to showing a voter how to cast a write-in nod, he said.

Step 3: Count the votes.

After the primary, each write-in is hand-counted by elections staff, Wolosik said. A computer wouldn’t know that Piduto and Pedito are actually both votes for Peduto. Or if a voter is selecting more than one candidate, such as “Vote for 4” for judge of the Superior Court, a write-in candidate that’s written in four times only counts once.

It takes time.

“That’s thousands of votes,” he said.

Step 4: Wait for the good news.

If someone has enough votes, the elections staff does the best they can to locate the potential candidate by checking voter registration and notifying the that person via a form, Wolosik said. The form asks the candidate to verify that all the write-ins state their name (or various spellings) and to return it if they want to be considered for the nomination.

Of the forms returned, the candidate with the most write-in votes per contest earns the nomination.

It’s difficult to predict how long the entire process will take after the primary and how many write-in candidates will make it to the November ballot, Wolosik said.

But there are two ways that candidates can find out early. On election night, candidates can appoint watchers to check the results tape that’s posted on the doors of polling places and add up the totals. The voting tape also becomes public record about a week after the election and is available to inspect (just like The Incline did).

The last day for write-in candidates nominated at the primary to withdraw from consideration is Aug. 14.

Politicians, fictional characters and athletes

The three Democratic candidates received the most write-ins from Allegheny County Republicans on May 16. It’s typical for candidates who are already running to get the most write-ins, Wolosik said. After Harris, Peduto and Welch, every other write-in candidate had fewer than 10 votes as of Friday. Write-ins of note this May included local and national politicians, as well as Pittsburgh athletes and fictional characters. We rounded up some of the more interesting selections here.

Republican Andy Dlinn (who ran in the District 11 Allegheny County Council race in 2015) had the fourth most at seven votes. After that, District 5 City Council member Corey O’Connor and Mickey Mouse (yes, that mouse) had six each.

Anti-Peduto write-ins — “anyone but Peduto,” “anyone else” and “not Peduto” — got a combined five votes.

Jesus and Jerry Sandusky each received a single write-in.

Politicians and officials

  • 229 — Harris
  • 228 — Peduto
  • 65 — Welch
  • 7 — Dlinn
  • 6 — O’Connor
  • 2 — District 8 City Council member Dan Gilman (D)
  • 2 — President Donald Trump (R)
  • 1 — Peduto’s Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin
  • 1 — District 4 City Council candidate Anthony Coghill (D)
  • 1 — Pa. state Sen. Jay Costa (D)
  • 1 — Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R)
  • 1 — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)
  • 1 — Former county executive and former chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County James Roddey
  • 1 — 2013 Democratic primary candidate for Pittsburgh mayor Jack Wagner

Pittsburgh athletes

  • 2 — Penguins right winger Phil Kessel
  • 1 — Penguins captain and center Sidney Crosby
  • 1 — Former Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann

Fictional characters

  • 6 — Mickey Mouse
  • 1 — Daffy Duck
  • 1 — Fred Flintstone
  • 1 — Mary Poppins
  • 1 — Snoopy

Wolosik said he’s never seen a fictional character or historical figure earn enough votes for the elections staff to have to attempt to contact them.

Why even have a write-in campaign?

It can help. Especially if you’re already on a ballot.

“It’s a gamble worth taking,” Sabino Mistick said. He added that running on one ticket and having a write-in campaign for the other is a way to say to voters: “I’m bipartisan.”

Plus, if a candidate doesn’t have a party endorsement, there’s less risk, added DiMola of Carlow University.

But political parties aren’t always as positive about candidates seeking both nominations.

Parties are strong because they can get their candidates elected to execute the party agenda, DiMola said. So from a party standpoint, she said, there is no reason to put time and resources into someone who is going to go after voters in both parties.

“We need candidates that are on our side,” said Dave Majernik, vice chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

He said running as a write-in candidate is difficult to do, so candidates are always better off getting signatures by the deadline. If a Republican wins the nomination on write-ins, Majernik said the committee would help with advice and resources.

It can leave a “bad taste in the mouth” for a candidate to seek the nomination from both parties, but overall, it’s a strategy that sometimes works, added Nancy Patton Mills, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Sometimes, a Democrat secures the Republican nod and “takes a knee,” so that the candidate on the Democratic ticket can win, she said.

Peduto, who had the Democratic nod, didn’t try for the Republican nomination, said Matt Merriman-Preston, a general consultant to the Peduto campaign. He added that the campaign isn’t looking to write-in results as a gauge of the mayor’s popularity. The results of the Democratic primary, where Peduto won with 69 percent of the votes in a three-way race, and no Republican candidate, are better indicators that Peduto’s “popularity is really overwhelming,” he said.

Where do write-in campaigns work?

In smaller elections, it’s more about issues like the local budget, added DiMola. So she said voters aren’t thinking about Democrat or Republican as much as they are thinking about “Is this person a good manager?” Similarly for judges, it’s more about which candidate is fair and knowledgable, not their political party, she added.

In the Democratic primaries for Wilkinsburg and Carnegie mayors, the respective winners Marita Garrett and Stacie Riley, both told The Incline that they also campaigned for the Republican nod. And in the highly publicized race for Bellevue mayor, Tom Fodi was one of three Democratic candidates and did the same.

There was no Republican candidate in Bellevue, so Fodi said some of his Republican friends asked if they could vote for him to have a choice. A self-described “political independent,” Fodi said he wants to serve all of the community. He previously ran as a Republican in multiple elections, including for his current Bellevue council seat where he also won the Democratic write-in.

On election night, Fodi said he found that although he lost the Democratic nod to Emily Marburger — who campaigned on being a lifelong Democrat – he had earned the most write-in votes and became the Republican nominee. (He needed at least 10.)

Running for Bellevue mayor wasn’t about national issues like fracking or abortion, he said, it’s about serving the community, through things like paving roads. He said a write-in campaign helps him have a chance to do that.

“It’s an opportunity that I wish more people got involved in,” Fodi said.