Tuesday, December 5, 2023

With Start of Early Voting, Virginia Begins High-Stakes Election Season

A ballot drop box stands outside a government office building in Henrico County. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Starting today, voters across Virginia can begin casting ballots in pivotal General Assembly elections that will decide which party controls the closely divided state legislature.

The start of the 45-day early voting window — during which Virginians can cast ballots in person at their local election office or send an absentee ballot through the mail — is shifting campaign season into higher gear as both parties stage rallies and other events to energize supporters.

The 2023 legislative races are the first being held in new General Assembly districts drawn in 2021 to account for a decade’s worth of population shifts. The redrawn maps and a wave of retirements by longtime legislators means many voters will be seeing new names on the ballot this year in an election cycle that will dramatically reshape Virginia’s legislature no matter which party wins majority control.

Anyone unsure of their voting status can check their registration and find their polling place through the online Citizen Portal offered by the Virginia Department of Elections. The nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project also has an online tool that lets users look up what’s on their ballot by entering their home address. For more detailed questions, would-be voters can contact their local voter registration office.

The last day of in-person early voting is Nov. 4, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27. Election Day is Nov. 7.

The policy stakes for Virginia’s off-off-year election cycle are strikingly high.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin led Republicans to a surprising political comeback in 2021, snapping a decade-long losing streak for the GOP in statewide elections and bringing an abrupt end to two years of full Democratic control of the statehouse. Two years ago, Republicans also retook a slim majority in the House of Delegates. But Democrats still control 22 of 40 seats in the Virginia Senate and have used that bastion of power to stymie much of Youngkin’s conservative agenda.

To break the gridlock of a divided legislature, both parties are asking voters to send them reinforcements.

At a rally in the battleground suburb of Henrico County this week, Youngkin tossed basketballs to the GOP faithful, urged Republicans to vote early and led the crowd in a chant of “Hold the House! Flip the Senate!”

“Now we have a chance to finish the work,” the governor said, touting his efforts to cut taxes, boost parental involvement in and raise expectations for public schools, support the “heroes” of law enforcement and run state government more efficiently.

At a GOP rally in Henrico County, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said national Democrats sending more than $1 million to help in the General Assembly elections shows the party is “scared” of what’s happening in Virginia. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin’s stump speech didn’t mention his push for stricter abortion laws in Virginia, which Democrats are hoping could be the decisive factor in November as Republicans wrestle with the political fallout of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The governor has rallied the GOP behind legislation that would ban elective abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy while allowing exceptions for rape, incest and protecting the life of the mother. Current Virginia law allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first and second trimesters of pregnancy. Abortion in the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week, is allowed only when three doctors agree continuing the pregnancy poses a severe threat to the mother.

In the dozen or so swing districts that will determine majority control, Democrats are making abortion the marquee issue, saying a few Democratic votes in the legislature are the only thing stopping Virginia from joining red states that have restricted abortion after the fall of Roe.

At an early voting kickoff event Thursday in Henrico County, several Democratic candidates said the election is about preserving abortion access and protecting recent advances on other Democratic priorities like voting rights, gun control and climate change. Much of what Democrats accomplished in 2020 and 2021, said Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, would be rolled back if Republicans win majorities.

“It’s not like we’re speculating on what they would do if they have the House and Senate and Youngkin in the mansion,” Bagby said. “We know what that looks like.”

Virginia Sen. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, faulted Republicans for rolling back early voting on Sundays during an election-season kickoff event in his home county. Behind him from left to right are Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico, Democratic House of Delegates candidate Rae Cousins and Richmond City Council President Mike Jones. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Aaron Mukerjee, the Democratic Party of Virginia’s voter protection director, faulted Republicans for using their majorities on local electoral boards to end Sunday early voting hours in several cities and counties that previously offered that option.

“The majority of Virginians don’t want an abortion ban. The majority of Virginians don’t want to roll back common-sense gun safety legislation that keeps our kids safe at school. The majority of Virginians don’t want folks to be taking away the right to vote,” Mukerjee said.

Virginia Republicans have pushed back against the characterization of the 15-week cutoff as a draconian “ban” while attempting to moderate the party’s once fervently anti-abortion rhetoric.

After the GOP rally in Henrico, Youngkin said he’s trying to forge consensus on a “tough, tough issue” and pull Virginia back from the “wildly extreme” view that abortion should be available to anyone at any stage of pregnancy.

“Their narrative only works if they can scare everyone,” Youngkin said of his opponents.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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