Commentary

A study says Virginians rank third nationally in political engagement. We’ll see in 8 days.

October 31, 2022 12:02 am

Campaign signs outside a polling station in Richmond, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – This is a city accustomed to big league politics. The legacy of former Arkansas Gov.-turned-President Bill Clinton is ubiquitous: libraries, schools, streets bearing his name.

This year, Arkansas has major statewide elections, including those for a U.S. Senate seat and governor. Yard signs sprout like dandelions from almost every parcel of real estate in its capital city.

Virginia, by contrast, has no statewide headline-grabbers, though there are some nail-biter congressional races. The 2nd and 7th Congressional Districts are anybody’s guess as Republicans, riding a wave of momentum, have targeted Democratic representatives in those swing districts. Things are getting interesting in the 10th District as well, a district in the Washington suburbs and exurbs where the Democratic incumbent should have an edge but where the Republican challenger has mounted a formidable campaign.

This commonwealth draws a bye on statewide races. This is the one even-numbered year in every six in which there is no U.S. Senate race. And Virginia elects its governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in odd-numbered years.

While Arkansas has more marquee contests, odds are that voters in Virginia are more knowledgeable and engaged in the few races in which they will vote in eight days than Arkansans will be, an analysis by fintech services provider WalletHub suggests.

The study ranks Virginia as the nation’s third most politically engaged state, trailing first-place Maryland and second-place New Jersey, according to its broad-based analysis of multiple metrics and political and election data. The information was drawn from independent, nonprofit research organizations such as OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics, U.S. Census data, Ballotpedia, AmeriCorps, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the job-search website Indeed.

Arkansas sits on the opposite end of the spectrum: 50th in average political engagement.

Why the enormous gulf between Virginia and her Deep South sister and other states less civically or politically attuned?

The obvious built-in advantage for both Virginia and neighboring Maryland is their proximity to the seat of national government.

Washington is a company town, and politics is the company. Business is brisk 24/7/365, and it never knows a recession, or even a bear market. That imperative  spills over abundantly into neighboring Virginia and Maryland. As in D.C., situational awareness is a prerequisite for the broad array of business that is tied to Uncle Sam in these two states.

“Consider how many people work in government or for companies that do work for the government,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“The percentage of people in the public sector in Virginia is probably higher than anywhere else, and it’s not just in Northern Virginia, but also in Hampton Roads with the military and veterans,” he said.

But being astute about government is not confined to the state’s most populous areas. In every region of Virginia, voters keep close track of issues that affect their communities.

Over many years of traveling Virginia and covering politics in areas as diverse as remote southwestern counties, the leafy suburbs of Arlington, Southside’s struggling former mill towns and Navy-dominated Norfolk, I found people conversant with not only their own political and governmental issues but those making news in Richmond and in Washington.

It also helps that voters in Virginia (and New Jersey) have more experience with elections. Ours is one of only a handful of states that hold general elections every November. Even-numbered years are for elections for federal offices – Congress and the presidency. Virginia reserves odd-numbered years for state government elections: the House of Delegates every other year; races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general as well as the state Senate every four years.

Only four states – Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia – will hold state elections in 2023. Virginia will elect new state senators and delegates.

“I think it’s meaningful from the perspective of engagement that Virginia holds elections every year,” said Kyle Kondik, the director of communications for the University of Virginia Center for Politics and managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”

Turnout for elections in Virginia – particularly the one next week with no statewide races on the ballot – pales alongside that for presidential-year elections, yet Virginians are showing up in impressive numbers.

In the 2020 elections, the 4.5 million Virginians who voted shattered the state’s record for turnout in any election, with an increase of 13% over the 3.9 million who voted in the presidential race four years earlier – the year Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was his party’s  vice-presidential nominee. The 3.6 million votes cast in the gubernatorial election last November was a 26% dropoff from the 2020 turnout, but it obliterated the previous record turnout for a governor’s race (2.6 million in 2017) by 25%.

And this year, early voting figures compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project suggest a turnout even larger than that seen in the 2018 “blue wave” midterm election that put Democrats in control of Congress and gave the party seven of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House seats. As of Oct. 26, Virginians had cast 473,735 early ballots either in person or by mail, compared with 344,594 who voted early in the 2018 midterms, an increase of more than one-third, but the liberalized early voting measures Virginians enjoy now were not in place then.

Other factors that figure into the study’s measurement of political engagement included education and income.

According to U.S. Census Bureau educational attainment data released this year, Virginia ranks eighth nationally in the percentage of people aged 25 or older who have at least a four-year college degree.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis ranks the commonwealth 14th nationally in per capita personal income and 13th among states in gross domestic product for the second quarter of 2022.

There’s one more category that reckoned prominently in the rankings and gives Virginia a powerful edge over most any other state: how much money it pumps into political campaigns and committees. That’s where our uncommonwealth, with only about 8 million people, punches above its weight. We rank seventh behind the likes of California, Texas, New York and Florida, according to OpenSecrets.org.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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