Using the Dems’ own law, Youngkin could unlock GOP power in pivotal 2023 races

Making it easier for registered voters, regardless of party, to exercise their franchise should be saluted universally.

August 28, 2023 12:04 am

“I Voted” stickers are displayed at a Richmond polling place during the 2022 midterm elections. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

After years of watching Democrats earn tens of thousands of ballots cast early in Virginia elections, Gov. Glenn Youngkin this year did something logical and refreshing if not, by some measures, brazen: He urged his fellow Republicans to vote early.

Think about that a second. Why should stating obvious common sense and a laudable civic goal be remarkable?

Many Republicans, poisoned by the dark ruminations of a desperate and paranoid ex-president, came to believe during the past few years that early voting – particularly voting by mail – is an orchestrated Democratic scheme to commit election fraud.

Quadruple criminal defendant and former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election baked distrust of anything other than on-site Election Day balloting deep into the MAGA Republican psyche.

A Pew Research Center poll last October found that in-person Republican voters are more dubious that their votes will be counted as they intended than voters who support Democratic candidates, indicating that the distrust Trump sowed in refusing to accept his loss two years earlier had not dissipated.

Let’s set aside the absurd idea that Democrats could orchestrate anything more complicated than a one-car funeral procession. Not much has changed in the century since Will Rogers said, “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Has early and absentee voting benefited Democrats? Sure. It removed impediments to voting for some of their natural constituencies, including the poor, the elderly, minorities andpeople with inflexible work schedules. And, as Youngkin himself concedes, Democrats have made far better use of it.

But equating it with fraud is corrosive to the essential truth that one of the few things our ever-evolving republic continues to do well is free and fair elections that enable the peaceful transfer of power (though Jan. 6, 2021, forever puts an asterisk on the “peaceful” part).

That’s why so many welcomed Youngkin’s recent appeal to his party to embrace early and absentee voting. He acknowledged the functionality and necessity of it earlier this month in a USA Today op-ed, and even gave Democrats grudging credit for creating a system he now urges Republicans to use as their own in a concerted bid to take full legislative control this fall.

“Democrats put these rules in place while in control of Virginia’s government and have used these rules to their advantage by vastly outpacing Republicans in early and absentee voting,” he wrote.

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

Some Virginia Republicans who’ve taken the time and done the math support the governor. In a July radio interview with conservative broadcaster John Fredericks, state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant and Fredericks both extolled the necessity of playing the Democrats’ early-voting game better than the Democrats.

“This is a way that forces us to make sure everybody votes,” Dunnavant said. “I’m not afraid of everybody voting; I just don’t want to leave my votes on the table.”

Dunnavant, R-Henrico, isn’t just singing in Youngkin’s amen chorus. She’s deeply leveraged because of her November reelection bid against Democratic challenger Del. Schuyler Van Valkenberg in a suburban Richmond swing district. It’s a contest that both parties consider strategically critical to Senate control. It’s likely to be among the most expensive legislative races in Virginia history.  

Republican Party of Virginia chairman Rich Anderson, in a separate interview with Fredericks, was even more blunt: “This is vital to victory in November.”

Even Fredericks — an unabashed Trump stalwart — differs with fellow Republicans who still react to early and absentee voting the way Dracula reacts to a crucifix.

“To resist this is insanity,” Fredericks said. “To resist this, you are ensuring our continual defeat.”

If emulation by your adversary is the sincerest form of praise, then this is where Democrats say, “Thank you … I guess?”

If emulation by your adversary is the sincerest form of praise, then this is where Democrats say, 'Thank you … I guess?'

– Bob Lewis

So what if Youngkin is cynically employing liberalized voting enacted by Democrats as a tactic to juice GOP turnout in this fall’s go-for-broke, off-off-year Virginia legislative elections? Making it easier for registered voters, regardless of party, to exercise their franchise should be saluted universally.

So here’s to you, Your Excellency!

The problem is that while Youngkin broadens voter participation, local electoral boards in some jurisdictions — all controlled by members of the sitting governor’s party as state law directs — are unashamedly doing the opposite by closing in-person early voting sites.

Voting early was, by any reckoning, a hassle in Virginia until three years ago. It required photo identification and a voter stating, under pain of perjury, that absentee balloting was necessitated by one of a limited menu of exceptions such as business travel.

In early 2020, pushed by the social distancing imperatives of the terrifying new COVID-19 pandemic and with Democrats in charge of both the General Assembly and the governor’s office, Virginia enacted no-excuse absentee and early voting. It allows voters to receive and return ballots by mail or cast ballots at specified sites beginning 45 days ahead of an election for any reason or none at all. It allows voters to opt in to permanently and automatically receive ballots by mail, a welcomed and empowering accommodation for people unable to make it to the polls on election day. A separate law also enacted that year also permits local electoral boards or general registrars to make Sunday in-person voting available.

Early voting for the Nov. 7 election opens on Friday, Sept. 22. The deadline to register in time to vote this fall is Monday, Oct. 16. To receive a mail-in ballot, your local voter registrar must receive your request no later than 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 27.

Some localities, however, are tightening the screws on voters.

Last month, the Richmond Electoral Board’s GOP majority voted 2-1 to close two of the city’s three early voting sites, drawing an immediate warning letter from the city attorney that the move was illegal. This month, the board thought better of its decision and rescinded it.

Richmond electoral board reverses itself, votes to open satellite voting sites

Earlier this month, the Chesapeake City Council voted 8-1 for an Electoral Board recommendation to reduce its early voting sites from seven to five, according to the Daily Press. Democrats noted that both shuttered locations are in majority-Black communities.

Chesapeake also discontinued early in-person voting on Sundays, an option popular among some African American churches that mobilize their congregations to go vote after morning worship services.

Cost shouldn’t be the main factor in operating satellite voting centers

While Youngkin — at least for this year’s election — urges Virginians to avail themselves of greater ballot access, several Republican-ruled states have lurched hard in the opposite direction.

North Carolina just passed legislation that curbs absentee balloting, gives partisan poll watchers new oversight authority at polling places and restricts private funding for elections. While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to veto the bill, Republicans have the numbers in both that swing state’s House and Senate to override it.

Sweeping GOP-authored changes in Georgia and Texas law were voided last week by federal judges in those states.

In Texas, a requirement that mail-in ballots be accompanied by the same identification number a voter used (often decades earlier) to register, was struck down. The number of rejected mail-in ballots soared in Texas after its enactment.

In Georgia, a judge temporarily set aside a law that punishes people who offer food or water to voters waiting for hours in interminable queues outside polling places.

That Virginia’s Republican governor is showing leadership in trying to unmoor his party from a baseless and self-defeating paranoia is encouraging. It would be more convincing, however, if he led Republicans on local electoral boards to see that our democracy works best when, as Dunnavant said, “everybody votes.”

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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]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]