In our wonderful former town of Hillsboro, Virginia there was (and may still be) a fine tradition of having no one formally run for office. They just put out the word that they’re interested and people write them in.
One year a very interesting thing happened, but I'll let my husband, Chuck, tell the tale:
For 30 years (1997-2015) my wife and I lived in a very, very small town in Virginia: Hillsboro. It was often described as “the smallest incorporated town in Virginia” (whether or not that’s true is unclear).
It’s a small town pretty close to Harper’s Ferry WV that was founded around 1800 so it has a lot of historic houses. The incorporated town has around 30 houses and maybe 100 full-time residents.
As an incorporated town, Hillsboro elects a mayor and a town council every 2 years. When we moved there, we were told about a long-standing election tradition - nobody ever filed paperwork declaring their candidacy. If you were interested in running for office, you mentioned that fact to the old guy down at the general store (yup, we had a general store) - old Glen Roberts. Glen hung out at the store all day. He ran the store and lived in the other half of the building. So you told Glen you wanted to run for mayor, and, if Glen approved, he’d mention it to people who came into the store (because everyone hits up the store sooner or later). The word got out, you’d receive a decent number of write-in votes, and you’d be elected.
That’s how it worked.
Glen was an older fella, and he eventually passed away. But the tradition of write-ins continued. It was simply a bit more difficult to get the word out. Maybe you told a few people, maybe you mentioned it in casual conversation when chatting with your neighbors, maybe you let it drop at church. The one thing you simply did NOT do was campaign for office. Stories circulated around town about a fellow who scandalously walked around outside the polling place with a sign that said “Dick Hoff for Town Council”. The story is that he got 2 votes - his and his daughters (which means his wife didn’t vote for him… not sure what that’s about). Regardless, that story was always told as some sort of cautionary tale to let people know politically ambitious folks were not what Hillsboro wanted!
Anyway, around '90 an election was coming up, the filing deadline was fast approaching and as usual, nobody had filed to be on the ballot. But in a break with tradition, nobody was putting out the word that they were interested. The guy who’d been mayor for the last 2 terms (Tom) had publicly stated that he was not interested in running for Mayor again. So not only were there no candidates but there wasn’t even a viable write-in candidate! A political vacuum, if you will. But as it turns out, I was at an event a few months prior to the election, chatting with some of my contemporaries, and somebody said something to the effect of “since nobody is running for office we should all file to get on the ballot - we’d be elected easily!”
For some reason this sounded like a good idea. So I grabbed a bunch of the filing forms and a few days later we held a meeting at my house. There were six of us, so we were going to file for mayor and the five open town council seats. Since it was my house I was unofficially in charge. I pointed to my left and said “what office are you going to run for?” He said “I dunno but I’m not running for Mayor”. I pointed to the next guy - same answer. And on and on until it got to me. And since everyone else had said “not Mayor” I said “well, I guess I’m running for mayor!”
And that was that.
So we all filed the proper forms, and the ballots came out. Sure enough, our names were on it. Nothing to do then but wait for the election to occur and bask in the glory of being elected.
The evening of the election we had a low-key party ready to go. My wife made a cake that said “Congratulations Mr Mayor” we were going to carve into. We were sitting around waiting for the polls to close at 7 PM so we could cut the cake. At 7:01 we got a phone call from Jocelyn, a neighbor from around the corner - the one who checked your name off the voting list and who counted the votes. The first thing she said was “Chuck, I’m so sorry.” Not understanding I said “Sorry about what?” She continued “You lost the election.” My response was “To WHO? How could I lose? Nobody else was even running!”
Jocelyn said “Tom decided he would run again and he went around town telling people last weekend. You lost 17-16.” So I had lost in an unopposed race…
Now the plot thickens: I remembered that the week prior, I’d been talking to a neighbor, Josh, and he told me he’d requested an absentee ballot since he would be on travel on election day.
So I asked the Virginia official “What about absentee ballots?” She hung up... but called back an hour later to tell me that yes, there was one absentee ballot that had been cast for me and now the election was officially a tie, 17-17.
And it turns out, when an election in Virginia ends in a tie, the State Board of Elections sends an official to the local election site. They write the two candidates’ names on slips of paper, fold them in half, and drop them into a container. Then without looking, another person draws a slip of paper out of the container. For some reason, I went to work and did not attend this ceremony, but my wife and infant son were there as my witnesses. They dropped the names into a box, held the box up high, and the slip of paper pulled out had Tom’s name on it.
So I tied - but I lost the tiebreaker.
The trauma was enough to end my political career. Though I didn’t win I always like to say “I’ve never lost an election.” On a positive note, after that, my wife made me a tee-shirt that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for the other guy” that I could wear around town (I never had the guts to wear it though!).
Small-town life at its’ best!
The Washington Post wrote up the official story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1990/05/03/va-towns-go-to-the-polls/322b3ccc-a723-466d-ae94-659ae7ad3d1b/
Meredith Bean McMath is a prize-winning playwright, award-winning historian, stage director, speaker, and former Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc.