WASHINGTON -- Hank the Cat appeared to have all the makings of a successful U.S. Senate candidate: a compelling biography ("born to a single mother living on the streets"), a snazzy website and plenty of free media coverage.
What he didn't have, aside from opposable thumbs, was a place on the Virginia ballot. So on the advice of his owner, Springfield, Va. freelance photographer Matthew O'Leary, Hank ran as a write-in candidate.
It has never been easy for political hopefuls, feline or otherwise, to run a successful write-in campaign. But in Virginia's Fairfax County at least, residents used to be able to get an exact tally of all the names voters penciled onto their ballots. Election officials painstakingly recorded all the names of those real and imagined, from Donald Duck to Darth Vader.
But the county no longer performs that time-consuming ritual. Virginia's State Board of Elections does not add up how many write-in votes any individual candidates get, nor do other county and city boards. Some don't record votes for nonhuman or nonexistent candidates.
A Washington Post review from Hank's own Springfield District, which covers 29 precincts in Fairfax, found that the kitty got at least 13 votes -- and possibly 20 more -- out of 155 total write-in votes and 54,000 cast overall in the Senate race. Eight of the votes came from Hank's home precinct -- Pohick. (For the record, Democrat Timothy Kaine won the Senate seat and Republican George Allen came in second.)
If Hank got the same 0.0006 percent of the statewide vote that he did in his home district, which seems unlikely, then he received roughly 2,000 votes overall. O'Leary originally estimated that Hank might have drawn thousands more.
Although write-ins are considered by some a waste of time, they are also part of a broader, long-standing American tradition of expressing dissent at the ballot box.
In Georgia this year, Charles Darwin reportedly got 4,000 write-in votes against Rep. Paul C. Broun, a Republican, who made pre-election news by saying that evolution and the big-bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell." In Tennessee, David "None of the Above" Gatchell -- his legal name -- has run unsuccessfully for several offices.
And in Nevada, voters have the option of choosing a line that says "none of these candidates" on their ballots, despite legal efforts by the Republican Party to remove it. That option drew more than 45,000 votes in this year's Senate contest, in which Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, defeated Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, by fewer than 10,000 votes.
Then there was the Maryland man who changed his name to Santa Claus and ran as a write-in for president. He got 625 votes this year.
Some write-in campaigns have been known to work. Anthony Williams won a write-in campaign for the District of Columbia's Democratic mayoral nomination in 2002. Though he was the incumbent, his campaign had failed to file enough valid signatures to make the primary ballot.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, managed to wage a successful one in the 2010 general election after losing in the Republican primary. Murkowski was helped by the fact she was the incumbent senator and the daughter of a former governor and senator. Plus, she is an actual human being.
In Fairfax County, election workers are not required to record "invalid" votes (described on official forms as "None of the above, Mickey Mouse, etc.") on older optical-scan machines. But some precincts record them anyway, and touch-screen machines do provide a record of whatever voters choose to type in.
Aside from Hank, retiring Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, got a handful of nods in Springfield. Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, Scooby-Doo and Mr. Peanut also got votes, as did rocker Henry Rollins and pop diva Lady Gaga. "Me" was the choice of one voter, while another suggested "Communist."
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is not old enough to serve in the Senate, got two votes, and that was before his four-touchdown performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann also got a Senate vote, while another ex-Redskin signal-caller, Sonny Jurgensen, got one nod for president.
A handful of Virginians cast congressional ballots for politicians from other states (Gary Johnson, Chris Christie) or eras (Theodore Roosevelt). Jesus Christ got at least one vote for president, perhaps in response to a "Vote for Jesus!" petition that circulated online and supposedly got more than 2 million signatures.
Doug Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Election Officials, said it was common for states not to add up ballots for individual write-in candidates who get only a smattering of votes, given how much election workers already have on their plates.
"Why would you spend the time to do all of that unless there is the possibility that the write-in can affect the election?" Lewis asked.
Plenty of Virginians just stayed home on Election Day. So why bother going to a polling place and waiting in line if you're just going to vote for a cartoon character? Or a cat?
"Historically, write-ins and protest campaigns, whether organized or disorganized, are a reflection of unhappiness or frustration with the two major-party candidates," said Quentin Kidd, who chairs the department of government at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. "The most common protest vote is a non-vote. Behind that is a third-party candidate, and behind that is a few jokesters."
Voters, of course, can express their displeasure in other ways. In Canada, for example, a group called the Edible Ballot Society encouraged voters to express their displeasure by eating their ballots, and a handful of Edmonton residents did during the 2000 election.
Even Hank's fellow felines have gotten in on the act: The town of Talkeetna, Alaska, has been governed by Mayor Stubbs the Cat for the past 15 years. Really. And last year, the Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association in Annandale, Va. elected a dog as its president, apparently by accident.
Hank the Cat had no such luck. O'Leary considered bringing Hank to campaign outside a few polling places, "but since the weather was kind of cool, he actually just stayed home and slept all day."
With Election Day over, O'Leary said Hank is eyeing the 2013 Virginia governor's race, which he considers "wide open," and there have been rumblings about the 2016 presidential contest. Hank has also earned a little election bonus: extra food in his dish.