Thursday, February 29, 2024

Early Vote Tally Continues to Climb for Big Virginia Election

“Vote Here” sign outside of early voting polling location in Richmond, Virginia. (Kaiana Lee/CNS)

RICHMOND — Virginia voters have about two weeks left to cast an early vote, in person. Over 287,000 people have already voted early in the Nov. 7 election, through both in-person and mail ballots.

More voters have cast an in-person ballot than submitted a mail ballot, as of Oct. 18. However, just over 228,000 mail applications have been requested, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

This is the first time a full General Assembly election has had a 45-day early voting period and no-excuse absentee mail ballot rule.

New laws made voting easier in 2021, and the number of absentee ballots has increased in recent elections. It’s hard to draw specific conclusions about overall turnout based on early votes, because law changes make a direct comparison impossible.

Only 4.7% of registered voters have voted early, using the VPAP tracker and state elections voter registration numbers. Virginia has an election every year, and odd-numbered years are considered “off-election years” — when state and local races are held, not federal races.

Turnout usually dives in off-year elections. However, the near 55% turnout for the 2021 governor’s race was the highest in two decades, when compared directly to other years the position was on the ballot. Almost 1.2 million of the votes cast were absentee.

The last time all seats in the General Assembly were on the ballot in 2019, overall turnout was just over 42%, the highest for statehouse races in two decades. That was the year Democrats gained control of the House and Senate under a Democratic governor, a rare trifecta in state government for the party — and which they lost in the House two years later.

Both parties are vying to be the party in charge. Whichever party holds the majority gets the majority seats on a committee, which is where a bill faces its first challenge to advance or die for the session.

There are 140 open seats, but only 11 are ranked by VPAP as competitive, with a few others not considered a sure bet. Turnout in these districts could sway the outcome of the election.

Three competitive races in both the House and Senate crack the top five for highest early ballots returned, as of Oct. 18.

Early voting trends show turnout has been highest in House and Senate districts rated leaning or strong Republican, and the competitive districts. No district rated strong Democratic is currently in the top 10 for early voting turnout, according to a review of VPAP data.

The House District 71 race between Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City, and Democratic challenger Jessica Anderson shows the most early votes. Just over 7,000 early votes have been cast in the leans Republican district, based on Oct. 18 VPAP numbers.

The Senate District 26 race between Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, and Democratic challenger Pam Garner has currently garnered over 13,000 early votes. The district is ranked as a strong Republican district.

Redistricting maps changed Batten and McDougle’s districts, though they would still represent parts of the previous area if they win.

This election has the potential to sway control toward either party. Republicans have a four-seat hold on the House, and Democrats have the same advantage in the Senate. Party control could have an effect on paramount issues such as abortion access and corporate tax cuts. 

The state’s voters seem to be relatively split on who they want in control. Virginia voters would only slightly prefer Democrats to lead the General Assembly, according to a poll from the University of Mary Washington. But the survey’s 3% margin of error keeps the results close.

Democrats instituted several voter access measures and have pushed an early voting message. In previous years, they’ve pulled ahead of Republicans with in-person early voting and mail ballots. Democrats rolled out an early voting initiative to mobilize its party this year called the “Majority Project.”

Republicans recently made a big push to convince its party to register and vote early. The “Secure Your Vote Virginia” initiative pushes for getting on the permanent absentee list.

Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, believes Republicans have steered clear of early voting in previous election cycles due to apprehension from former President Donald Trump.

“Republicans are much better off with early voting than not, and we’re seeing, particularly in some of the early voting statistics, that Republicans are coming close to catching up to Democrats on early voting,” Farnsworth said.

Media contacts for both parties did not respond to multiple attempts for an interview, made via phone, email and even dropping by the state Republican Party headquarters in Richmond.

In addition to the statehouse races, over 2,300 local seats will be on ballots throughout Virginia. That includes seats and positions such as mayor, school board, board of supervisors, treasurer, clerk of court, commonwealth attorney and sheriff.

The deadline to apply for a mail ballot is Oct. 27. The last day to vote early in-person is Nov. 4. For other important voter information and deadlines, click over to 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 a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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