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Could Bill Euille's Name Spell Trouble For His Write-In Campaign?

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Election officials in Bristol created this document to train registrars on how to handle misspelled names on the ballot.
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Election officials in Bristol created this document to train registrars on how to handle misspelled names on the ballot.

It's pronounced "yül," as in a Yule log. But it's spelled "Euille," a name that may make it difficult for the mayor of Alexandria to keep his job.

Back in June, Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille lost a hotly contested primary to Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg. Now he's hoping that voters will keep him around by writing his name on the ballot.

Virginia election law says write-in ballots "shall be entered by the voter in his or her own handwriting or hand printing," which means the kind of rubber stamps used when Anthony Williams led a write-in campaign for mayor of D.C. back in 2002 would not work. Another part of the code says misspellings "must be acceptable" if the "intention of the voter is discernible."

But what does that mean? For example, what if a voter writes "Yule"?

"We actually haven't had a full conversation about voter intent," says Alexandria Registrar Anna Lieder. "I'll be talking to the Department of Elections to see if they have more guidance."

That means the election for mayor of Alexandria is murky, at least for now. That sense of uncertainty will last until the day after the election, when the three members of the Alexandria Electoral Board — two Democrats and one Republican — will make the final determination about which spellings will count and which ones won't.

"On election night, the only thing that will be reported is the total number of write-in votes," says Lieder. "We won't know how many votes any specific write-in candidate won until the Electoral Board meets the next day."

To make the point, Lieder shuffles through her desk and produces a sample tally sheet from Bristol. Election officials were grappling with a high-profile write-in campaign there, so they created a training document that considers a hypothetical write-in City Council campaign for Mickey Mantle. Members of the hypothetical electoral board would have to consider whether they'd include votes for "Mickie Mantle" and "M.E. Mantle." Just like members of the hypothetical electoral board, members of the real-life Alexandria Electoral Board will have to vote on each individual spelling variation to determine if the votes are valid.

"You would try to group all the variations of the same name together, just to make it easier for the board to look at," says Lieder, "and then you would have your other ones who received additional votes."

Write-in candidates are almost never successful, though there are several notable examples. Sen. Strom Thurmond won a U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina as a write-in candidate in 1954. In 2010, Lisa Murkowski won a U.S. Senate seat in Alaska as a write-in candidate. Closer to home, former Alexandria Mayor Frank Mann defeated incumbent Alexandria Mayor Leroy Bendheim as a write-in candidate in 1961.

"There has to be a strong reason to compel voters who would otherwise vote for the candidate who is already on the ballot," says Geoff Skelley, analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Euille would have to convince voters that Silberberg is not worth voting for even though she's the one with the 'D' by her name, having won the nomination."

One feature of the November election that will help Euille is the low turnout. Election officials are expecting 25,500 voters, about 30 percent of the city's 85,000 registered voters. Because none of the General Assembly races are competitive, that means the race for Alexandria mayor will essentially be at the top of the ticket. Add to that support from former Mayor Kerry Donley, the third-place finisher in the June primary, and Euille has the potential to put together a serious campaign against the Democratic candidate.

"If you think back to the Thurmond example, he had been governor of South Carolina and he had been a presidential candidate. He was a well-known individual, and I think we have the same thing with Euille," says Skelley. "That was true for Murkowski as well, because her father had been governor and senator and she had been in the office a bit. So that's the kind of person who could put together the resources to pull something like this off."

Campaign finance records from June show Euille raised about $200,000 during the campaign. Although he spent most of that during the primary, he still had about $30,000 after the election. He's also been raising money since that time from supporters who persuaded him to launch the write-in campaign. Silberberg, on the other hand, raised about $85,000 during the campaign. She was left with about $1,200 after the primary. That means Euille has far more money heading into a fall campaign, and more access to money.

"Especially if he's backed by developers," adds Skelley.

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