Don’t like the Options on Your Ballot? Write-in Your Own.

Matt Bell's son, Olen Bell, shows support for his father's Chatham Town Council campaign. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

October 28, 2020

Matt Bell’s campaign in Chatham is the latest write-in campaign, offering voters something different.

CHATHAM – Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, Oprah Winfrey, Elvis Presley. What do they all have in common? They’ve all received write-in votes during a local or state election.

How is that possible? It’s all thanks to the good ole write-in option. If candidates don’t meet a person’s standards, they’re welcome to write any name they do so please onto their ballot. Total, 42 states and Washington, D.C. had some form of write-in option on their ballot in 2016.

While some people simply do it for the comedic aspect, others do it as a voting boycott, of sorts. Sometimes, voters call write-ins “protest ballots.” Others call write-in votes “throw away ballots.”

Even if several million people rallied around voting Walt Disney’s mousey friend into the White House, poor Mickey wouldn’t move in come January. That’s because in 32 states including Virginia, despite the prevalence of write-in options on ballots, a candidate can’t simply earn a position because people wrote down their name.

There’s a process that viable candidates go through before becoming proper write-in options in Virginia.

That’s what one Chatham resident, Matt Bell, marketing and media specialist at Averett University, did early this fall when he decided to run for Chatham Town Council.

“I filled out certification paperwork for the registrar and wrote a letter indicating how my name could appear on the write-in line: Matthew Bell or Matt Bell. She needed that info to insure it was counted correctly,” Bell said. “If anyone else is doing a write-in campaign, and to my knowledge there isn’t anyone else, I simply need more votes than them to win. Otherwise, it’s uncontested and just a matter of tallying up the votes.”

A viable option

Bell began his town council candidacy far later than others in the running, Irvin Perry and Bob Thompson.

That’s because with three seats open and only three candidates in the running, councilwoman Teresa Easley suddenly dropped out of the race. The change occurred after local election officials printed ballots, leaving her name as a voting option.

However, no matter how many votes Easley might receive – despite local election officials notifying voters of the change before casting their ballot – she won’t be on the town council next year.

Bell didn’t originally plan to be, either. But it wasn’t for a lack of passion.

A utility deal in the fall of 2019 took until March 2020 to pass, which first sparked Bell’s interest in a town council seat. He noted that it shouldn’t have taken four months to accept the contract. Yet, the slow moving process didn’t propel Bell to seek a council seat quite yet.

Bell also noticed the town’s lack of younger council representation. Ironically, that’s one of the reasons he didn’t originally campaign earlier in the year.

His opinions changed as the year progressed, and with just over a month until the election, he launched his bid for the third council seat.

“In the spring I considered running, I really did. But at the time, I felt I was too young and made excuses that I wouldn’t be heard,” Bell said. “When the other candidate withdrew, it was well too late to put my name on the ballot so I had to do a write-in campaign.”

Gaining momentum

Bell’s candidacy quickly gained traction. In less than one month, his political Facebook page garnered 660 likes. That’s only two fewer likes than Chatham Mayor Will Pace’s political Facebook page, created four years ago.

Pace, along with other local officials, publicly supported Bell’s campaign.

In a Facebook post on Sept. 30, Pace wrote in part, “Matt Bell will make a great addition to the Chatham Town Council and has my full support. As a former reporter, Matt covered the actions of the Chatham Town Council and is very knowledgeable of all things happening in Chatham.”

In the same post, Pace praised Easley’s leadership and expressed sadness at her withdrawal.

Danville councilman Lee Vogler also expressed support for Bell.

On October 1, Vogler posted on Facebook, “I’m glad to hear my friend Matt Bell is running for Chatham Town Council and I proudly endorse his candidacy. If you live in the town of Chatham, please write in Matt Bell on November 3.”

Bell appreciated the support of the local leaders.

“I am humbled and honored to have received so much support from my peers,” Bell said. “It is truly a blessing to know you have so many people behind you.”

Changes in Chatham

While the town has several businesses and restaurants, there are also vacant buildings along Main St and the surrounding areas in Chatham. Bell imagines the streets differently.

“I envision Chatham growing and having new sources of tax revenue. I want to see industries come to the area that will enhance the look and feel of the town. It’s time we work with Pittsylvania County Economic Development to find new industries for the area,” Bell said. “In the five years I was in newspapers, I can’t think of one economic development announcement I attended for the benefit of the Town of Chatham, and that’s sad.”

He also expressed interest in highlighting the town’s outdoor jewels and recreational opportunities. He’s got a plan to make it happen, too.

“I also want to see Chatham bring more awareness to options for health and fitness. I would like to see signage go up to make people aware of where parks are in Chatham, for example. The parks also need to be kept up to date,” Bell said. “Those are changes that won’t happen overnight, and would have to be well advertised and put before a committee with public input before moving forward.”

The homestretch

With early voting well underway in Chatham and the remaining voters scheduled for Nov. 3, those selecting a write-in candidate must write in the name and fill in the bubble beside it. Otherwise, the vote will not count.

Bell looked forward to the official results, following next week’s vote.

Come Nov. 4, it’s possible that Bell could awaken as an incoming Chatham Town Council member.

“It would truly be exciting. Already, I’m all in,” Bell said. “I am ready to improve Chatham for future generations and those that are here today.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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