‘Stop sitting on the sidelines’: Youngkin pushes GOP to embrace early voting

GOP effort aims to win over conservatives skeptical of voting through the mail

By: - July 11, 2023 5:25 pm

A video promoted by Virginia Republicans features Gov. Glenn Youngkin encouraging supports to vote early.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin launched a new initiative Tuesday to push Virginia Republicans to take advantage of laws Democrats passed making it easier to vote early, despite lingering resistance to mail voting from the party’s pro-Trump wing. 

The “Secure Your Vote” program pushed by Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC and the Republican Party of Virginia encourages voters to sign up for the state’s permanent absentee voting list, which allows ballots to be automatically mailed to participants every election cycle. That list and absentee voting itself have come under sharp criticism from some GOP lawmakers who argue ballots going out via mail are more susceptible to fraud.

“Republicans gotta stop sitting on the sidelines and allowing the Democrats to do a better job of voting early,” Youngkin said in an appearance Tuesday morning on Fox News, where he said his party puts itself at a disadvantage by ceding Virginia’s 45-day early voting window to its opponents. 

Republican legislators have recently tried to roll back or repeal the lengthy early voting period, but those efforts have been blocked by the Democratic-controlled state Senate.

The party’s new focus on mail and early voting comes in the runup to Virginia General Assembly elections this fall that will have major ramifications for the state’s political future. Republicans are hoping to defend their majority in the House of Delegates and flip the Senate, which would give Youngkin complete policymaking control for the second half of his term. Democrats are hoping to keep the Senate and make inroads in the House, empowering them to continue to thwart the most controversial aspects of Youngkin’s agenda. As Youngkin toys with the idea of running for president, another winning storyline for him in November could also boost his chances of making a late entry into the 2024 GOP primary as a more competent alternative to former President Donald Trump.

Republicans called the early voting effort a “coordinated program” involving the governor’s PAC, the state party, the statehouse-focused Republican State Leadership Committee, and both GOP caucuses in the Virginia General Assembly. In a news release, Youngkin’s PAC described the program as a “seven-figure,” “data-driven effort” to target Republican-friendly voters with sophisticated outreach techniques and encourage them to vote early via mail or in person. The website Youngkin’s team rolled out Tuesday includes online forms to assist Republicans with requesting absentee ballots and getting information on how to vote early.

In response to Youngkin’s announcement, the Democratic Party of Virginia mocked the GOP’s “surprising new support for basic democratic institutions” and suggested Republicans are trying to clean up a mess caused by their own tolerance for false election claims.

“Virginia Republicans should not be surprised if Virginians aren’t buying their supposed newfound support for democracy,” said Aaron Mukerjee, DPVA’s voter protection director. “Under Governor Youngkin’s leadership, Virginia has caved to the conspiracy theorists by pulling out of ERIC, advancing unnecessary voter suppression bills and standing by while election deniers take over electoral boards and registrars’ offices across the commonwealth.”

As they have in the past, Youngkin aides characterized the push as a reflection of their determination to win under the system they’ve been given and not necessarily an endorsement of more open voting laws.

“The rules are the rules are the rules,” said Matt Moran, a longtime GOP operative now acting as executive director of Youngkin’s PAC.

In a joint news release, Democratic lawmakers called the move hypocritical.

“If they are serious about this initiative, the GOP should apologize for their previous attacks to invalidate voting systems,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored new state-level voting rights protections when Democrats had power. “Until then, this is nothing more than political games from people only focused on using any means available to grab power.”

Democrats overhauled Virginia’s formerly restrictive voting laws in 2020, eliminating the state’s photo identification requirement and passing a variety of measures designed to make it more convenient to vote. The state’s former law required voters requesting an absentee ballot to have a valid excuse, such as travel or work duties that would prevent casting a ballot through the regular Election Day process. Under the current system, any voters can cast a ballot through the mail or by visiting a local election office in the 45-day period leading up to an election. 

Those changes, combined with safety precautions instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to major shifts in Virginia voting patterns, with a significant portion of ballots now cast early.

In the 2021 gubernatorial election Youngkin won, more than 36% of overall ballots cast were absentee or early votes. That trend continued in the 2022 congressional midterms, when about a third of Virginia votes weren’t cast on Election Day.

Those batches of early votes typically favor Democrats, because Democratic candidates have been more eager to hype voting reforms their party delivered and Republican voters have been inundated with right-wing messages portraying mail voting as nefarious.

There have been no documented cases of widespread mail voting fraud in Virginia’s recent elections, but the system continues to be a target for conspiracy theories among the GOP base. 

The entire election office in Buckingham County quit earlier this year as local conservatives spread unfounded claims that more than 20% of absentee votes cast in the county’s 2022 election came from non-Buckingham residents. In a sign of that theory’s prominence in the county, the Buckingham County Republican Committee promoted the claim about improper absentee voting on its Facebook page. A local Republican briefly hired to run the county election office before being fired a month later also expressed support for former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was tainted by widespread fraud.

The Buckingham situation may be the most dramatic example of local Republican activists having more fervent views on election integrity than their party’s elected leaders, but concerns about absentee ballot fraud remain widespread among the conservative grassroots. A Republican-allied group called Virginia Fair Elections, which offers training to activists interested in overseeing election processes, lists “limit absentee ballots” as one of its policy priorities.

In a briefing for reporters held in the Richmond offices of a Republican political firm, Youngkin aides pointed specifically to the GOP’s loss in a special election for a state Senate seat earlier this year as an example of how they’re having to play catchup on mail-in voting. In that contest, Republican Kevin Adams stayed competitive with now-Sen. Aaron Rouse, D-Virginia Beach, in Election Day voting and in-person early voting. But the party lagged far behind in mail voting, with Rouse winning 72% of the ballots cast via mail in Virginia Beach.

Youngkin’s political team said it’s planning a concerted media “blitz” in the coming days, with top surrogates set to make TV appearances promoting the pro-early voting message. The governor’s aides also expressed confidence they and their allies have enough credibility to overcome resistance from conservatives who have been led to see mail voting as negative.

“I think it’s having different voices that they respect,” said Dave Rexrode, chairman of Youngkin’s PAC, when asked how the effort will change Republican voters’ views on early voting.

Youngkin’s political team said it has identified a group of roughly 500,000 voters who supported Youngkin in 2021 but sat out the 2022 primaries. Encouraging that segment of the electorate to cast a ballot in 2023, the PAC’s operatives said, will be a key part of their strategy.

“We have to go get them early,” Moran said. 

Though Youngkin hasn’t directly criticized those in his party who spread false claims about elections and emphasized election integrity in his 2021 campaign, he has recently portrayed the state’s election system as trustworthy.

“Elections in Virginia are secure and safe,” Youngkin said in an appearance this week on a right-leaning podcast, The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show. “There’s a paper ballot for every voter. We have counting machines, not voting machines. We have clear audits that demonstrate that our elections are safe.”

In-person early voting for the Nov. 7 election begins Sept. 22.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.