Voting Hand Stock

If some voters in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County had their way, Scrooge McDuck would be Rockingham County’s treasurer, Stone Cold Steve Austin would be the sheriff and Batman would be a state delegate.

“Unfortunately, or fortunately, [they’re] not gonna win,” Lisa Gooden, the director of elections for Rockingham County, said with a laugh.

State code bars fictional candidates or phrases, such as “no one,” to win elections, she said.

Nearly 2,500 write-in votes were cast by city and county residents who turned out to vote for Tuesday's general election.

Among write-in votes were “Bag of Leaves” for the Soil and Water Conservation District. “Harambe,” the gorilla that was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 when a 3-year-old fell into his enclosure, was written in for commonwealth’s attorney. Both were among ballots at the Waterman Elementary School precinct, according to results provided by the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County registrar's offices on Thursday.

The phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” was written in  for the commonwealth's attorney, sheriff and twice for the Soil and Water Conservation District in the Stone Spring Elementary precinct. The phrase has become a popular cry for continued investigation into the death of the hedge fund manager and alleged sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, who died while in police custody in August.

The most popular write-in phrase was “anyone else,” which appeared dozens of times in multiple precincts across the city and county.

Rockingham County voters wrote a variation of the phrase “anyone else” more than a dozen times for sheriff and 30 votes were cast with similar words for the commonwealth’s attorney.

In the city, phrases such as “anyone else” or similar phrases, such as “literally anyone else,” appeared at least 42 times.

“Whenever someone is unopposed, you’re going to have more write-ins,” said Debbie Logan, the Harrisonburg director of elections. “I think it’s basically [the voters] don’t want the candidate and they don’t like that they don’t have a choice.”

The number of write-ins tends to drop when there is a choice, she said.

In the race between state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Shenandoah County Democrat April Moore for the 26th Senate seat, there were only 17 write-in votes cast in Harrisonburg.

One of those write-ins was Nat Turner — a slave who led the only “effective, sustained” slave rebellion in America history, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson and Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst ran unopposed on Tuesday, and their races saw the largest numbers of write-in votes cast.

In those write-in votes, two real names appeared more than a dozen times— Boris Ozuna and Harvey Yoder.

Ozuna is a local activist and the founder of the Harrisonburg chapter of Friends United for Equity and Grassroots Organizing, or FUEGO. Ozuna has previously argued against Hutcheson holding undocumented immigrants who have booked been in the jail until federal immigration agents arrive.

Yoder, a member of the local religious community, submitted an open forum to the Daily News-Record discussing the positives and negatives of Garst and Hutcheson’s tenures. In the piece, published on Oct. 18, Yoder said that he would be casting his vote for “Lady Justice.”

Lady Justice appeared at least 20 times on Harrisonburg and Rockingham ballots.

Lionel Hutz, the unskilled and amoral lawyer from the hit TV cartoon "The Simpsons," received a vote for commonwealth’s attorney by a voter in the Lucy Simms precinct of Harrisonburg.

Garst received over 34,000 votes compared to the 900 write-ins, while Hutcheson had nearly 34,000 votes compared to more than 900 write-ins.

Other real candidates received write-in votes in races they were not in, such as 26th House District contest between Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Democratic challenger Brent Finnegan.

Democrat Cathy Copeland received at least a dozen write-in votes, with 11 coming from various precincts in Harrisonburg and one from Rockingham’s absentee voting rolls.

Finnegan had beaten Copeland in the June primary before he faced Wilt on Tuesday. Finnegan won the primary with more than 66% of the vote but fell short against Wilt.

A similar theme emerged on the other side of the political aisle.

In Rockingham County, Tina Freitas’ name was written over a dozen times on ballots for the 24th Senate District. Freitas had challenged Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, in a primary, but was defeated as Hanger took 57% of the vote, or more than 11,000 of the nearly 20,000 ballots cast.

But most write-in votes were names that only appeared once or were fictional figures, such as Mickey Mouse or Duke Dog.

“I think it’s probably just a joke — just something that may be on a whim,” Gooden said.

Despite some of the write-in candidates' obvious obstacles to holding office, the voting option is no joke.

Various elections in Rockingham County have been won through organized write-in campaigns, Gooden said.

In 2018, Charles Lawhorne won a seat on Grottoes Town Council after mounting a write-in campaign, according to Gooden and the Virginia Department of Elections. Two years before that, Neal Dillard was elected to one of three open seats on Mount Crawford Town Council with write-ins, according to Daily News-Record archives.

Across the state, Republican Nick Freitas of was forced to launch a write-in campaign after failing to get his name on the ballot, according to Associated Press reports.

On Tuesday, Freitas declared victory over Democratic challenger Ann Ridgeway in the 30th House District. Nearly 58% of the ballots cast, approximately 15,000, were for write-ins, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.

Local voter registrars have until Tuesday to formalize all results, according to the Department of Elections.

Logan and Gooden agreed the decision on who to vote for, real or not, is ultimately up to the individual.

“It's every voter’s right to put what they want to put,” Logan said. “They’re voicing their right as the voter.”

Even if that choice is Batman.

It just won’t count.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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