The Debunker: In 2016, Did Ten Thousand People Vote for a Dead Gorilla?


If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: In 2016, Did Ten Thousand People Vote for a Dead Gorilla?

Content warning: dead gorilla! You probably remember the bizarre news cycle from May 2016 in which a three-year-old boy visiting the Cincinnati Zoo climbed into the gorilla enclosure and got grabbed by a 450-pound silverback named Harambe. (That’s the Swahili word for “working together.”) Zoo employees, seeing little alternative, were forced to shoot and kill Harambe. Your Honor, these are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

The Debunker

Harambe's strange and tragic death fascinated the world, and the video of his death went viral. In our weirdly joke-saturated time (shameless plug here for my new book Planet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture) Harambe also became a social media comedy signifier, figuring into all kinds of ironic online tributes and conspiracy theories. The Cincinnati Zoo and many animal lovers, obviously, considered this to be in pretty poor taste.

This all came to a head as the 2016 election neared, and Public Policy Polling, for some reason, included Harambe in their presidential polling. Harambe earned 5 percent of the vote in one July poll, well ahead of third-party candidate Jill Stein. After Donald Trump's narrow electoral college victory in November, the internet remembered the "Harambe for President!" movement, and claims began to appear on blogs and social media that the thousands of write-in votes for Harambe (between eleven and fifteen thousand, in most accounts) had swung the election to Trump.

This viral story resonated, because it tied into a tempting narrative of voters being complacent screw-ups—so complacent that would actually vote for a reality show host or a dead gorilla! But it was a hoax. At the time the Harambe story appeared, votes were still being tallied, and write-in votes are generally treated like provisional ballots and counted last. Write-in votes are not tallied separately in most states, and in fact only seven states allow write-in votes for candidates who didn't file election paperwork. Unless Harambe was very prescient in early 2016—and somehow convinced authorities to count his age in gorilla years—nobody was tallying his votes.

Quick Quiz: What Western lowland gorilla, famous for her use of sign language, died of old age in San Mateo County, California in 2018?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

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