Reader Aaron from East Cobb, Georgia wrote in to ask, “When I vote, if a candidate is running unopposed, I will often cast a write-in vote for a fictional character (e.g. Kermit the Frog). Does someone actually tally and record such votes, and is there anywhere I can go to see if he got any other votes?”

It depends on where the vote is cast, because state and local laws and election codes vary. In many places, write-in votes are not a free-for-all, and elections boards don’t count or record a write-in vote if it’s not for an official write-in candidate in a given race.* In Cochise County, Arizona, for example, a write-in for an unofficial candidate has “the same effect as not voting at all in that race.” The vote isn’t counted or even registered as a vote, and shows up as an “under vote” in the final results.

Elsewhere, illegitimate write-in votes are counted, even if they don’t actually count. In Georgia and Texas, for example, write-ins for unofficial candidates don’t mean anything to the election, but some counties will still tally the invalid votes and/or keep lists of the names that were written in and publish them in elections reports. In Clarke County, Georgia's write-in report from the 2012 general election, Charles Darwin got some 4,000 votes in the 10th Congressional District race. The election commission for the US territory of Guam also tabulates and publishes the write-in votes cast in the island’s elections. You can see their 2014 write-in report here.

Whether you’re just getting a laugh by voting for Mickey Mouse for president or expressing you dissatisfaction with the candidates who are running, elections officials all over would really like it if you didn’t write in joke votes or unofficial candidates. Ballots with write-in votes usually have to be set aside and examined by an elections official so they can decipher the voter’s handwriting, determine their intent, and compare the vote to the list of official write-in candidates—all of which costs time, manpower and municipal money.

*Who is and isn’t an official write-in candidate also varies from place to place. Getting into the race in Texas means filing a Declaration of Write-in Candidacy with the Secretary of State or a county judge, and either paying a filing fee or having a nominating petition with a certain number of signatures. Aspiring write-in candidates in Georgia, meanwhile, need only run a notice of their intent to run as a write-in in a newspaper and send the same notice and an affidavit to the appropriate officials