Voters wait in line at an early voting center in Henrico County on Oct. 20, 2020. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Chris McIsaac and Robert Melvin
When Democrats were in power in 2020, Virginia enacted one of the longest early voting periods of any state. Now, Governor Glenn Youngkin and GOP candidates for the Virginia legislature are seeking to capitalize on this law to propel themselves to a Republican trifecta of state government control by urging supporters to lock in their votes before Election Day. With key legislative majorities on the line, Virginia has become a national model for how Republicans hope to use early voting to win competitive elections.
Republicans kicked off their effort to encourage early voting in Virginia’s 2023 legislative election back in July with the launch of the Secure Your Vote Virginia campaign. This get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiative will also serve as a trial run for a national effort launched by the Republican National Committee (RNC) to promote early voting in the 2024 presidential campaign.
Early voting has become popular in Virginia since lawmakers extended the time period to 45 days and approved no-excuse absentee voting in 2020. While the pandemic drove nearly 60% of voters to submit their ballots early or by mail in 2020, voters have continued the trend in the two post-pandemic general elections under the new rules. Rather than return to pre-pandemic levels – where less than 10% of ballots were cast early – roughly one-third of voters cast their ballots in advance of Election Day in 2021 and 2022. It’s a shock to no one: when campaigns promote early voting, more individuals take advantage of the practice.
Campaigns with limited campaign funds available for GOTV efforts need to maximize the impact of every dollar. By encouraging routine voters to submit ballots early, GOTV dollars can be used to target less reliable or undecided voters — a much more prudent use of funds.
Increased early voting also benefits the voters as well. Voting from home or in-person before Election Day offers many voters, who are already struggling to balance work and family obligations, more flexible and convenient options. It also helps those who prefer to vote on Election Day by contributing to shorter lines at the polls.
Unfortunately, many Republicans have become wary of early voting; despite research finding no meaningful impact on election outcomes, the perception that early voting benefits Democrats over Republicans persists. But it’s just not true: Look no further than the Virginia elections in 2021 held just months after the voting reforms went into effect. Rather than helping to cement Democratic power in Richmond, Glenn Youngkin prevailed over Terry McAuliffe and Republicans flipped 7 seats to regain control of the House of Delegates. And, obviously, with more power in the statehouse comes the ability to shape policy in the years ahead.
That ability to inform future policy around the mechanics of early voting will be critical as its utilization continues to increase. For example, Virginia election officials are allowed to begin processing mail ballots as they are received. This includes things like verifying signatures and removing ballots from envelopes, allowing for greater efficiency when the actual tabulation begins on election day, which inspires confidence in our elections and reduces delayed results. Legislators in other states where election workers cannot process early votes as they are received, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are looking to follow Virginia’s lead by implementing changes to allow for some period of pre-processing.
Pre-processing is just one example of early voting policies that will be fine-tuned in the coming years, particularly as the practice grows in popularity. By focusing on achieving victory under the state’s existing early voting rules, Virginia Republicans are increasing the odds of being in a position to inform these essential debates and leading a path forward for other states to adopt similar practices.
Chris McIsaac is a fellow with the R Street Institute’s governance program. Robert Melvin is senior manager of state government affairs for the northeast region at the R Street Institute.
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