TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—This year featured one of the most contentious federal elections in history, with unprecedented coverage and a lead-up rife with tension between Democrats and Republicans. Countless news organizations offered wall-to-wall coverage of the campaigns from years before Election Day to days after, until President-elect Joe Biden was declared the winner.
And yet, plenty of Tompkins County voters were apparently unimpressed with their various options, both at the federal level and locally. They decided to make their disillusionment known by thinking, and voting, outside the box, writing in their own preferred candidates for the various offices up for election. Perhaps predictably, the overall leading write-in vote recipient in Tompkins County this year? Mickey Mouse, with over 20 votes across multiple races.
Some were defiant, some were creative (two Dragon Ball Z characters received support), some may have been downright confused—Jesus is unlikely to take the demotion, but he received multiple votes for two local criminal justice positions. Whatever the case, let’s take a look at the races that were either prominently featured or held the most write-in interest.
President of the United States – Democrat Joe Biden and incumbent Republican Donald Trump weren’t wildly popular candidates, but considering the significance of this federal election, not many voters took the opportunity to write-in votes for president. The primary recipient who was officially listed was rapper Kanye West, who staged a bizarre write-in campaign but failed to get on the ballot in several states. More seasoned political candidates did not garner much support in Tompkins County (though it’s important to note that some third party candidates, like Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen for example, were listed on the ballot and thus not considered write-ins).
Tompkins County District Attorney – Of all the offices voted on in November, the District Attorney’s race provoked the highest number of write-in votes. That could have been a result of the Democratic primary race decided in June, which was contentious and featured a fair amount of mud-slinging from either side, both by incumbent Matt Van Houten and his unsuccessful challenger, local attorney Ed Kopko.
Van Houten ran unopposed in the general election, but Kopko attracted plenty of write-in votes. Others did, as well, a wide variety of serious to comedic suggestions. Deputy District Attorney Andrew Bonavia received several write-in votes to lead the field; others who received less were Kanye West, Spongebob, former President Ronald Reagan (who is dead but also scored one vote for Tompkins County Court Judge), local Democratic Socialists of America activist Russell Rickford, Disney icon Donald Duck and Dragon Ball Z character Vegeta. One voter reached way back and voted for Hamilton Burger, the fictional Los Angeles County District Attorney in the Perry Mason universe.
Danby’s 3rd District saw the most write-in dissonance, as one person wrote in Republican Congressman Tom Reed for the DA’s office, though they were matched by another voter who submitted Merrick Garland, a former Supreme Court nominee under former President Barack Obama (this district also had a vote for President Donald Trump for the office of Tompkins County Court Judge).
Write-ins for a litany of other causes made appearances too, highlighting the antipathy towards the criminal justice system that some locals hold. “Nobody” was one voter’s choice for the office. “NO!” and “ACAB,” or the acronym for All Cops Are Bastards both received a few votes. “No one” and “Anyone but” also received support. Trayvon Martin, the Black Florida teenager who was killed in 2012 in another instance of violence that roused a similar race conversation as George Floyd’s death this year, also received one vote.
New York State Supreme Court Justice, 6th District – With relatively little information on the court race, local voters took the opportunity to get more creative with their write-in choices. Though there were not many write-ins, their range was vast: Rapper Cardi B and basketball player LeBron James both secured one vote each. Local racial justice activism icon Phoebe Brown also received a vote, one of seven she received across four different races. This is also the race that received the single “School Sucks” vote.
New York State Assembly – Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles comfortably won her election as the successor to longtime 125th District Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. That was the assumed conclusion after she won the Democratic primary in June over six other candidates, though some of them did secure write-in votes. That field was led by Common Council member Seph Murtagh and local attorney Sujata Gibson, both of whom received over 10 write-in ballots. Former Lifton general counsel Jordan Lesser, who Lifton endorsed in the primary, also received multiple votes.
Municipal offices – There were a laundry list of write-in candidates for various local offices, but because of how the write-in ballots were accounted this year, it is difficult to examine and list them all. The most random: TV personality, homemaking magnate and white collar felon Martha Stewart received one vote for Town Justice of Ulysses.
That vote came from the 4th district of the Town of Ulysses, which certainly had a few intriguing choices. Vote getters included NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, former Cornell wrestling legend Kyle Dake, former President George W. Bush and John Henry, which could refer to the owner of the Boston Red Sox.
Miscellaneous – Former perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul received one vote for State Senator, County Court Judge, District Attorney and Town Supervisor in the Ithaca 6 district, though it is unclear if they all came from the same ballot (but that seems likely).
Southside Community Center Executive Director and Ithaca College professor Dr. Nia Nunn received one vote for the Tompkins County Court judge’s position—officially tying her with God, who also received one vote. That office also attracted votes for local attorney Mike Pichel, Kanye West, attorney Sujata Gibson, former Ithaca mayor Alan Cohen, attorney Ray Schlachter and the second Dragon Ball Z character in this year’s election, Frieza. One voter simply listed their choice for the judgeship as “Pedro,” while another chose The Lone Ranger.