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Those claims that Harambe won 20,000 votes are based on nothing

There’s no way to know if thousands wrote in the dead gorilla for president.

harambe gorilla Cincinnati Zoo
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, the temptation has been strong among those on the left to blame third-party voters. But one write-in candidate in particular has walked away with his fair share of the blame, at least on social media:

Of course, despite his undeniable status as 2016’s meme of the year, Harambe didn’t actually run for president. The famous Western Lowland gorilla was controversially killed in May to protect a child who entered his pen at the Cincinnati Zoo. After his untimely demise, Harambe became an overnight celebrity, making headlines all over the world and quickly becoming an ongoing, extremely popular internet meme.

In keeping with the meme, numerous voters took to social media on Election Day to joke that they voted for Harambe.

The humor may have fueled the spread of an unsourced and unverified election-night rumor that Harambe really did receive a bunch of write-in votes — a whopping 10,000, in fact. No, make that 11,000 — or rather, 14,000. Wait, 15,000? Do we hear 20?

This new urban legend spent most of election night flying across social media, and was frequently stated as fact. But the reality is that even if 20,000 Americans were willing to jeopardize the outcome of the election just to award their vote to a dead ape, we wouldn’t know about it. In fact, we probably won’t ever know how many voters wrote in their ballots, or how many votes were for individual candidates.

The vast majority of write-in votes are rarely counted, and each state handles the matter differently. Some states prohibit write-in votes altogether.

It’s true that write-in candidates can be successful; historically, a number of politicians have won primaries or elections through write-ins. Perhaps the most notable example was longtime South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who initially won his position through a write-in campaign in 1954. But in more than 30 states, for write-in ballots to be counted, the write-in candidate must submit a letter of intent in advance — something Harambe couldn’t have done, being both dead and a gorilla.

Absent any such petition that preregisters the write-in candidate for eligibility, it’s highly unlikely that write-in votes in those states would even be counted. Meanwhile, a write-in candidate’s chances of success aren’t much higher even in states where pre-election petitions are not required.

Some states prohibit write-ins altogether. Others throw out write-in votes without counting them, while still others tally all of them as if they were for the same write-in candidate. The likelihood of a significant number of write-in votes being tallied for a single human, let alone an ape, is very small; the likelihood that enough votes could be written in to make a significant impact on a federal election is even smaller.

Still, given what was for many voters an agonizing election result, there’s clearly something inversely appealing in the myth of US citizens wasting their votes on an internet meme. In the aftermath of a surprising election result, upset voters are pointing fingers, whether toward affluent white voters who turned out for Trump, third-party voters who drew crucial votes away from Hillary Clinton, or other factors entirely. Assigning blame to an invisible subset of irresponsible internet users allows people to feel better about the deplorable state of the union. The idea that a dead gorilla was an election wild card might help some observers cope.

And it’s not as if this idea is without precedent: In a widely publicized Texas election poll held in July, Harambe and another meme turned candidate, Deez Nuts, were inexplicably presented as electable candidates on a list that included both Trump and Clinton. In that instance, 2 percent of respondents selected Harambe as their preferred commander in chief.

Harambe’s posthumous political bid ended before he and his loyal constituents could Make America Ape Again. But if nothing else, perhaps his unlikely candidacy can serve as a reminder that there’s a reason the nation’s unwieldy election structure exists. To some, the painstaking gauntlet of primaries, the popular election, and the Electoral College might seem like overkill. But that process helps ensure that the nation doesn’t actually vote a dead gorilla into the White House.

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