A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

In Roanoke County, where school board meetings this summer were roiled by debates over LGBTQ+ issues and resulted in three people being charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct, Samantha Newell is running against board chairman Brent Hudson.

She objects to the board’s policies that she says discriminate against trans students.

In Appomattox County, where a parent is suing the school system for not telling her about her child’s gender transition, Tom Adams recently announced a campaign for the school board, saying he wants to make the county’s schools “more accommodating to parental rights.”

Newell and Adams are coming at things from two very different political perspectives but they have one thing in common: Both are trying to win as write-in candidates.

The deadline for getting on the ballot was in June but across the state we’re still seeing candidates come forward to mount write-in campaigns. A Google search quickly pulled up other write-in campaigns for school boards in Prince Edward County, Warren County and Winchester, and the odds are good there are others.

And that’s just school boards. We also have write-in candidates for the General Assembly by two losers in Republican primaries in June. Dave LaRock thinks Republican nominee Timmy French is insufficiently conservative, so he’s running as a write-in candidate against French and Democrat Emily Scott in Senate District 1 in the northern Shenandoah Valley. Matt Strickland is mounting a write-in bid for Senate District 27 in the Fredericksburg area against Republican nominee Tara Durant, Democrat Joel Griffin and independent Monica Gary. State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield County, who lost her primary bid, looked into a write-in campaign but later abandoned the idea.

As for the ones who are still trying, do any of them stand a chance?

Let’s look to see what history tells us.

Back in July, I looked at how often write-in candidates win General Assembly races. The short answer: very rarely and then only under highly unusual circumstances. The best-known write-in campaign was in 1989, during a miners’ strike in Southwest Virginia, when union leader Jackie Stump ran for the House of Delegates and knocked off an incumbent, who had the misfortune of being related to the judge who had imposed steep fines on the union. For practical purposes, a write-in can’t win a legislative race. For the longer version, you can read the original column.

For today, let’s move on to school board races, which is where a lot of the write-in interest is this year.

I’ve looked back over four years worth of school board elections in Virginia. (Yes, this is tedious, but I was curious).

In 2019 — which would be the same election cycle as this year — Virginia had 383 school board elections. Write-in candidates won 13 of them.

In 2020, we had 52 school board elections. A write-in candidate won in one.

In 2021, we had 166 school board elections. Write-in candidates won in nine of them.

In 2022, we had 69 school board elections. Write-in candidates won in two of them.

That’s 25 candidates over four years who have won school board seats via write-in campaigns.

Now, before anyone gets too excited one way or another, here’s a big qualifier: In 23 of those 25 races, the write-in candidate won because no one was on the ballot. As I pointed out in a previous column, that’s sometimes a problem in some rural localities — no one files to run for the school board.

Let’s take a closer look at those other two races.

One was in Brunswick County in 2019, where Timothy Puryear won as a write-in candidate in District 5 with 35.2% of the vote over Caren Malone, who was on the ballot and took 33.3% of the vote. Other write-ins added up to 31.5%. There’s a catch here, though: Puryear was the incumbent. He’d been elected in 2015 — as a write-in in a district where no one was on the ballot — so by 2019 he wasn’t your typical write-in candidate. He had the advantage of incumbency.

The other exception was in Bedford County in 2021, and it’s more unusual. Matthew Holbrook ran as a write-in candidate in District 2, against an incumbent, board chairman Jason Johnson, and won. Holbrook took 49.6% of the vote to Johnson’s 45.5%, while other write-ins took 4.9%.

Holbrook ran on a parental rights agenda in reaction to the various restrictions that schools had enacted during the COVID pandemic. A story that year on Smithmountainlake.com said that Holbrook’s “decision to run for the school board came largely as a response to the school board’s recent decision to comply with the Virginia health commissioner’s August public health order that requires students, teachers and staff at public and private K-12 schools in the state to wear masks while indoors.”

Holbrook said of masks: “It should be the parents’ choice; it should be the people’s choice. It’s not the government’s choice.” For those who want to revisit that issue, I refer you to our recent story about how Virginia Tech professor Linsey Marr recently won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her search into how easily COVID-19 is transmitted through the air.

For our purposes today, I’ll pose this question: Was Holbrook’s win the equivalent of Jackie Stump’s win in the House race back in ’89 — a product of such unusual circumstances that it’s unlikely to be repeated? Or does his campaign offer a template for other candidates this time around? We won’t know the answer to that until the votes are counted, but we can notice some patterns.

All of these 25 localities where write-in candidates have won school board races are rural. That’s important for a very practical reason: It takes fewer votes to win in a rural county. Of course, as a percentage of the population, those numbers might still be impressive, but in simple numerical terms, it’s not many votes.

In 2019, Jeffrey Morse ran unopposed in the Dulles district in Loudoun County. He still polled 11,029 votes. In defeating an incumbent in Bedford County, Holbrook polled 2,368. The total votes in that district — 4,776 — were less than half of that an unopposed candidate in Loudoun collected.

And Holbrook’s vote tally seems quite impressive next to that of Puryear in Brunswick: Puryear won with 267 votes. In all, just 759 votes were cast in that race. That gives you some sense of scale in the size of Virginia localities, and Brunswick is by no means the smallest.

Write-in campaigns today are easier than they once were. It’s a lot easier to write in a candidate’s name on an optical scan ballot than to figure out the right lever to push up on the old-school voting machines that some of us grew up with. In theory, social media also makes it easier to get the word out.

Still, elections are ultimately a numbers game. So how many votes would it take for some of these school board write-ins to win?

Again, let’s look to history.

When Hudson was elected to the school board in 2021, there were 8,208 votes cast in Roanoke County’s Catawba District — he took 5,338 of them. The turnout that year was boosted by the governor’s race; turnout this year should be lower, we just don’t know how much lower. When Don Butzer was elected to that seat in 2019, he polled 4,454 votes with no one else on the ballot. For Newell to win, it seems safe to say she’ll need somewhere north of 5,000 write-in votes. She’ll also need to do this against a Republican-endorsed candidate in a district where most precincts routinely voted 70% or more Republican.

Adams in Appomattox County has a clearer shot, at least mathematically. He’s a conservative candidate in a district where one precinct voted 79% Republican last year and the other voted almost 83% Republican. I have no idea whether voters there will prefer him over the incumbent, but he’s running on friendlier terrain and needs fewer votes. Jason Wells won last time with 807 votes out of 1,119 cast.

Still, it’s a lot better to be on the ballot than off the ballot. I notice that this year Puryear, who won two straight write-in campaigns in Brunswick, is on the ballot. And he’s also unopposed.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...