RICHMOND — New voter registration has slowed for this election, compared to the last time all 140 General Assembly seats were on the ballot in 2019. The upcoming election is considered high stakes for many reasons, and college students are working to get out the vote.
About two-thirds as many new voters registered this September versus four years ago, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project. But, the overall number of registered voters is higher.
Virginia is one of a few states that has an election every year. The governor and state legislature are elected in years outside of federal races.
Voter registration often drops “slightly” in odd-numbered years because there is historically less interest in state legislature races, according to J. Miles Coleman, associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
There is concern that low voter registration could indicate low voter turnout, which usually dips anyhow in statehouse elections because of the number of races with no challenger. What will help ensure a victory for either party is high turnout in competitive districts.
This will be the first full General Assembly election after redistricting. The new maps ushered in a bunch of retirements, and there are a lot of first-time candidates on the ballot.
More voters (42.4%) turned out in 2019 than had been seen in decades for a statehouse election. Higher turnout was part of an overall trend seen after the election of former President Donald Trump.
Younger voters have been credited in the past for driving turnout and Democratic victories, especially in federal races. Voter turnout rates at Virginia college precincts and among millennials increased in 2019, according to a previous Capital News Service analysis of voter precinct results. Democrats clinched majority wins in the state House and Senate.
Coleman pointed to a 2017 Virginia House race that was so close the victor’s name was drawn from a bowl, along with a 2020 Iowa race decided by six votes. Votes do matter, he said, and it has been getting easier to vote in the past few years.
“Young people definitely have a lot going on, but these are critical decisions that are going to be made in Virginia based on whatever happens this election,” Coleman said. “So, I would just say not to get complacent.”
Alex Keena holds a doctorate in political science and is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He researches political representation.
“Voter registration doesn’t favor one party or another,” Keena said. “But when you see lower registration, that’s concerning.”
High registration and engagement usually mean younger people are showing up, according to Keena.
“Young people have their own issues that they care about,” Keena said. “It doesn’t necessarily give Republicans or Democrats an advantage but it certainly does dictate the type of priorities and who gets elected.”
Republicans hold the governor’s mansion and a House majority, while Democrats have a Senate majority.
If Democrats win the General Assembly, they would be in a stronger position to negotiate the annual budget and pass legislation on issues like gun control and codifying the right to abortion. If Republicans gain control, Gov. Glenn Youngkin would have an easier time passing legislation to limit abortion access and institute corporate tax cuts, according to Keena.
A solid Republican victory in Virginia could also bode well for Republicans gaining control of the White House or Congress, according to Keena.
“On the flip side, if Democrats just come out and trounce the Republicans and sweep these elections, then that’s probably bad for Republicans,” he said.
Barriers to voting
Despite recent reforms that make it easier to vote, including a 45-day early voting period and same-day registration, college-age voters still have some logistical and personal barriers to voting.
Aria Lovelace is a VCU junior studying journalism and international relations. She is currently enrolled in the course VCU Votes, where students work to increase voter registration and participation.
Younger people don’t always show up at the polls because they don’t know how to vote, think they’re too young, or that life is too busy, according to Lovelace.
“That’s just not true,” Lovelace said. “You don’t have to be an expert to be a voter. You get to be a voter because you’re an American citizen, and you’re 18.”
The course is a nonpartisan student voter engagement initiative that began in 2012 to increase voter registration on campus. VCU Votes has registered over 15,000 students to vote since then, and also helped drive turnout, according to the university.
“Future of our country”
The College Republicans at Virginia Tech are tabling weekly to reach and register voters, according to chapter chair Ashley Covitz. There are a lot of important local races also on the ballot, Covitz pointed out. The group has focused on “school board, town council, constitutional offices, and delegates” in Montgomery County and Blacksburg.
“With the amount of information spread through technology (i.e. social media), engaging can easily make or break a campaign,” Covitz stated over email. “Young voters are the future of our country.”
Connor Eppley is a junior studying political science who is enrolled in VCU Votes.
“There’s too much on the line not to vote,” Eppley said. “ I know that the state legislature is going to have way more of an impact on my life than the federal government, so it’s important to turn out this time.”
Virginia has a sizable, diverse population, along with rural and urban communities. For these reasons, Virginia is often considered a bellwether state, according to Eppley.
“It’s going to signal to voters across the country what, where we’re kind of headed politically,” Eppley said. “Presidential candidates from both sides should be tuning in to see how the election goes in Virginia.”
Early voting has begun in Virginia. The last day to officially register to vote is Oct. 16, but voters can also register the day they vote and submit a provisional ballot.
A mail-in ballot must be requested by Oct. 27 and postmarked on or before Election Day. It must be received by the general registrar’s office by noon on Friday, Nov. 10. The last day to early vote in-person is Saturday, Nov. 4. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Nov. 7.
Voters can check registration and polling information on the Virginia Department of Elections website.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for various media outlets in Virginia.