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Politicians come and go, but year after year, the name of one write-in candidate is scrawled onto more ballots than any other in Sonoma County.

Mickey Mouse, the 84-year-old Disney icon, consistently gets more write-in votes than any other unofficial candidate, Sonoma County elections officials say.

"Donald Duck is a close second," said Gloria Colter, Sonoma County's assistant registrar of voters.

With three weeks to go until Election Day, mail-in ballots are pouring into the county elections offices. As of Wednesday, early voters in Sonoma County have cast about 13,000 ballots by mail, Colter said.

But this year's batch of votes for Mickey, Donald and other fake candidates will not be counted, Colter said.

Up until the 2008 presidential election, the machines that processed ballots at the Sonoma County elections office would completely stop operating whenever it encountered a write-in candidate. Election workers then had to check to see if the write-in name was a qualified candidate.

Today's machines, however, automatically determine whether a write-in candidate is qualified to be on the ballot, Colter said. The votes are not counted, she said.

While casting a vote for Mickey Mouse no longer throws a wrench in the system it's still no laughing matter, she said.

"Mickey and Donald are not qualified write-ins for any contest," she said. "In an election of this magnitude, make your vote count."

When comedian Pat Paulsen was still alive and living in Sonoma County, he often gave Mickey a run for his money as the most popular unofficial write-in candidate.

Yes, more contemporary Disney characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Lightning McQueen may have greater appeal among younger audiences. And Spider-Man and Captain America may be claiming more floor space at the local Disney Store.

But for some reason, the hapless rodent and eternal optimist continues to be the most popular write-in candidate for president of the United States, elections officials say.

Write-in candidates like Mickey Mouse point to a generation gap, an indication of who the most likely voters really are in Sonoma County, said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.

"These voters also tend to be a little bit older than what would qualify as youth," he said. "They're 35 and above. At that age, there's a common icon that isn't Mick Jagger or Tony Bennett or Willie Mays."

When voters cast a vote for Mickey Mouse, they're sending a few messages, McCuan said. Frustration with the electoral process is one common message, he said.

"Campaigns serve an educative role," said McCuan, adding that if candidates cannot adequately differentiate themselves from their opponents, some voters will resist choosing "between flavors of ice cream."

That's when Mickey appears on the ballot, though it could be any pop culture icon, a sports star or actor. Mickey's popularity, he said, could be a result of his untarnished image all these years.

While today's pop icons are often compromised by the eventual sex tape or other embarrassing video footage — Justin Bieber recently threw up on stage during a concert — Mickey has been able to keep it clean.

"Mickey is a common icon that everyone can reference without the baggage of so many cultural icons out there," McCuan said.

But that doesn't mean he can or should be president, Colter said.

"By not making a decision, you're allowing other people to make the choice for you," she said.