Why are joking candidates campaigning in elections?

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Their faces are on campaign posters, but their names aren’t on the ballots – so why are unelected candidates vying for victory in local elections?

The tradition of promoting non-human candidates on election signs continued this weekend in the Northern Territory local elections.

They included Butters, a terrier cross from the western highlands who is campaigning to become mayor of Darwin and Palmerston, and chairman of Coomalie Shire.

Although Butters was not officially named and is not on the ballot, six of his posters are on display around the Top End.

Nine-year-old campaign manager Will Baldwin of Batchelor said his pet dog promised “free ice cream, more spending money, free slushies and more homework.”

“He’s smart, loyal, well-mannered, and better than human applicants.”

Will Baldwin and Butters.(

Provided: Will Baldwin

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Big paws to fill

Butters fills the skin of an outgoing political dog.

There aren’t many Top Enders who haven’t heard of Scrumpy the Jack Russell Terrier.

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Scrumpy campaigned for the Territorial Parliament in 2016, Mayor of Darwin and Palmerston in 2017, and posthumously for the Federal Parliament in 2019.

It helped that its former owner Deb Taipale also ran a sign making business.

“We made six posters just for fun.”

Scrumpy’s death in January 2019 grabbed the NT headlines and sparked much mourning on social media.

“If it made a few people laugh, then so much the better. But it’s gone crazy,” Ms. Taipale said.

Near the bone

The 2012 Alice Springs local election saw a prankster put up joke signs featuring characters who some believed looked like some of the real candidates.

Mayor Damien Ryan freely admits that he resembles Family Guy’s main character, Peter Griffin.

Collage of man and cartoon character.
A collage of Alice Springs Mayor Damien Ryan with an election poster of Family Guy character Peter Griffin, who appeared in the Alice Springs local election in 2012.(

ABC: Emma Sleath. NT Library and Archives: Cameron Boon

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The character appeared on streetlights in Alice Springs during the election campaign.

“I burst out laughing because I knew right away that the portrayal of Peter Griffin was me,” Councilor Ryan said.

The assailant never confessed, but Councilor Ryan has his suspicions following an anonymous letter to his office.

“There were a few angry candidates, you might say,” he said.

Signs for Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster also caught the city’s attention.

A side-by-side image of Cookie Monster and also gollam on election posters
Cookie Monster and Gollum made Alice Springs voters laugh in the 2012 election.(

ABC News: Emma Sleath

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Sinister side

But sometimes the joke can get out of hand, and there are about a dozen cases around the world – mostly in the United States – where dogs, goats, cats, a mule, and even a foot powder have been elected.

The least successful candidates included a rhino, a boar, a turtle, chimpanzees, a puppet, a chicken and a fire hydrant.

A stuffed goat on a red background.
The Ioiô goat on display at the Ceará Museum in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil. Ioiô was elected city councilor of Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, in 1922.(

Wikipedia: Mizunoryu

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University of Queensland psychology professor Winifred Louis said there were four evidence-based reasons why joke candidates have emerged.

“A [reason] is larrikins, where probably young people, probably friends, are cheering each other on, ”she said.

“Another reason is the low political interest and anger over compulsory voting.”

In this case, Professor Louis says that “people don’t care who wins.”

“They just want to argue that the system is despicable,” she said.

The third reason is strategic, when a candidate joke is used to attract the votes of a close rival.

Head shot.
Winifred Louis, professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.(

Provided: UQ

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“You can pitch a candidate joke that can attract something like 5% of the vote and that person’s preferences can be used to win an election for the title,” Professor Louis said.

“It’s a bit cynical and in fact fraudulent.

Professor Louis said the last reason for a candidate to joke was the most common.

“Which is a protest that the big parties don’t offer a good choice, that the ground is bad,” she said.


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