Every election, there are a number of votes that are tabulated but remain uncounted. In other words, no one knows how many votes in a presidential election go to fictional characters, inanimate objects, or other ineligible people or concepts.
Not even Santa Claus knows how many votes Santa Claus got in either 2008 or 2012, when he was legally registered with the Federal Election Commission as a write-in candidate in just over a dozen states. “I have no idea. Most of the states don’t count them unless the exit polls show that 20,000 people or whatever said they voted for Santa Claus,” says Claus.
It’s unlikely that enough people will ever vote for Santa Claus to actually provoke election commissions to count those votes, but Santa gets votes every election.
Claus, 68, lives in North Pole, Alaska, and possesses a voice that sounds like a warm wool sweater. He was born under the name Thomas O’Connor, and spent much of his life in New York City, where he was, he says, in charge of security at Port Authority (the city’s main bus terminal) and was a special assistant to the deputy police commissioner of New York City, along with various other governmental positions. There, he says, he became deeply invested in children’s issues: everything from abandonment to adoption to homelessness to healthcare to abuse. (Claus himself has one stepson, who’s now in his late 30s.)
Years later, while living on the Nevada edge of Lake Tahoe, he decided to grow his beard out, and was surprised to find that it emerged from his face shock-white. This new beard, plus his general appearance and demeanor, logically connected him to Santa Claus. Soon enough—“11 years ago this May”—he legally changed his name to Santa Claus, and then moved to North Pole, Alaska, a small town near Fairbanks.
Claus, who is one of a small group of people who have changed their name in honor of Father Christmas, gained some notoriety in 2008 and 2012 for his presidential campaign, complete with buttons and a slogan and all the necessary paperwork. Late last year, he sparked another round of stories due to being elected to the North Pole City Council on the strength of a write-in campaign. “Name recognition is a big element for any campaign,” says Claus, “Ultimately, Santa Claus, it’s easy to remember, and it’s easy to spell.”
Protest votes, as they’re called, have a long history in this country; Michael Moore famously started a campaign to elect a ficus tree to Congress, and joke votes are common. Fictional characters are also routine, but the selection is oddly small: Disney characters loom large. Mickey Mouse, as The American Prospect reported, gets the lion’s share of fictional character votes, with Donald Duck being a perennial favorite. In 2008, the state of Vermont begged voters to stop writing in fictional candidates, with the secretary of state admitting that, “Occasionally, I would write in my husband’s name because I love him and I thought it was cute.” Santa Claus remains a popular choice for people looking to throw away their votes.
What would possess someone to write in Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus in an election? It’s not really a protest, like Moore’s ficus tree, nor is it a current meme, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, nor is it, frankly, funny, at all. It is a truly boring and bad joke to write “Santa Claus” on your presidential ballot.
But the real (“real”) Claus doesn’t quite think so. He is, despite the very particular life choices he’s made, neither dumb nor boring. During our conversation I found him wryly funny, fully self-aware, and extremely articulate and well-versed in politics. His campaign and indeed his life have focused on serious things. He is, he says, a monk, and his view of Christmas is not exactly what joyous children expect: he takes a historical view, seeing Santa as suited for the Feast of Saint Nicholas, and tells children when they ask him for presents that they should focus on giving rather than receiving.
His issue platform changes over time, though, just like a real politician. Claus entered the news for his opposition to a measure that would ban medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations in North Pole, despite laws that make them legal throughout the state. (Claus says he is a medical marijuana patient, used to treat cancer.)
This year, Claus elected not to run, citing the expense and overall headache of struggling with various election commissions to even allow himself as a write-in candidate. (Forget about getting on the ballot; this is just making sure if he was somehow elected through write-in votes, it would count.) So who’ll earn Santa’s vote this year? “I like what Bernie has to say,” he says. “In fact his platform partly resembles mine, back when I ran. So I have an affinity for Bernie.”