Robert Fennel has been the State Representative in the 10th Essex District in Massachusetts for the past 18 years. In September, he won the primary handily, receiving nearly 90% of the vote. While this scenario is not unique among incumbents across the nation, what makes the story of the 10th Essex County race interesting is that sticker candidate Gardy Jean-Francois earned the other 10% of the votes via write-in.
In June, Mr. Jean-Francois had been denied a spot on the primary ballot after the State Ballot Commission ruled that 36 of the 184 signatures on his nomination forms were not valid, leaving him two signatures short of the required 150. Although the candidate had prepared to testify at his State Ballot Commission hearing, in an unfortunate turn of events, Mr. Jean-Francois contracted an infection that put him in the hospital on the day of the hearing. Feeling wronged, Mr. Jean-Francois vowed to continue his campaign as a sticker candidate though the primary and into the general election this November.
Sticker candidates, permitted in some states including Massachusetts, are those candidates who produce and distribute adhesive labels for voters to affix on their ballots in the designated “write-in” area. Stickers often prove to be an effective means for candidates vying for a write-in nomination to receive public support at the polling stations. Given that Massachusetts law prohibits distribution of campaign materials within 150 feet of the polling location, the primary dilemma for sticker candidates is how to ensure their labels are distributed to enough citizens prior to election day.
Historically, sticker candidates have distributed labels by going from door to door in local communities. Although that method is still used, sticker candidates have begun to use their campaign websites to allow residents to request stickers be sent to their houses. According to Mr. Jean-Francois, his campaign will be distributing between 10,000 and 15,000 stickers through the mail to those who requested them via his webpage.
Whereas technology by way of the internet seems to have made it easier for sticker candidates to garner support, for election officials, technologically-enhanced voting mechanisms have posed additional burdens for tallying sticker candidate votes. Take for instance the 21st Middlesex District of Massachusetts, where State Representative Charles Murphy, who would have run unopposed, declined to run for re-election after the deadline for registering for the primary ballot had passed. As such, four candidates, one Republican and three Democrats, decided to run for his seat as sticker candidates.
At Burlington High School, the voting location for the 21st Middlesex District, optical scanning machines are used to count ballots. Although the machines typically have no problem discerning whether a ballot was cast for a write-in candidate, the machines are unable to discern for which write-in candidate the ballot has been cast. As such, scanners sort ballots with write-in nominations into separate piles to be counted by hand. Concerns have been raised about the ability of scanners to process sticker ballots due to their added thickness. However, Burlington Town Clerk Amy Warfield asserted that these concerns are largely unfounded. In her experience, the largest obstacle to overcome during elections in which there will likely be a large number of sticker candidates, or write-in candidates in general, is finding additional election officials to count the ballots by hand at the end of election day.
As illustrated by these cases in Massachusetts, the future success of sticker candidates relies on impending advancements in technology. On one hand, an expanding communication network may allow write-in candidates to muster more influence among voters. On the other hand, election officers will need to consider the difficulties posed by sticker candidates when updating their vote-counting mechanisms lest ballot stickers become obsolete.