For nearly half a million voters in Virginia, Election Day is already over.
So, in the final two weeks of the closely watched governor’s race, with more people voting every day, the pressure is intensifying on Democrat Terry McAuliffe to address frustration over inaction in Washington and Republican Glenn Youngkin to overcome existential questions the GOP base has about early voting.
McAuliffe is trying to address an enthusiasm deficit among politically beleaguered Democrats, some of which has been exacerbated by the fact that the party in total control of Washington is struggling to pass President Joe Biden’s economic agenda ahead of a self-imposed end-of-the-month deadline to reach a deal. With voters voting now, McAuliffe can’t wait that long, and he’s asked a number of top Democrats to come to Virginia in hopes of spurring turnout. Youngkin, meanwhile, has had to confront the legacy of former President Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in and early voting during the 2020 election.
Both candidates, who themselves voted early, have bombarded the airwaves with ads during the early voting period, which began on September 17, hoping voters will choose to come out early and either vote in-person or request a ballot to vote by mail. Campaigns traditionally like to drive their supporters to vote early because it allows them to focus more on harder-to-reach voters in the final days leading up to Election Day.
The race between McAuliffe and Youngkin is closer than either side expected, so the early vote is a critical component for both candidates. A recent Fox News survey found 51% of likely voters backed McAuliffe, compared to 46% for Youngkin. Voters gave a net favorable rating to both McAuliffe and Youngkin in the poll.
The Youngkin campaign, in contrast to the way many other Republican campaigns have handled pre-Election Day voting since the 2020 election, has been aggressively promoting early voting in the commonwealth.
“We were really excited to get a chance to come vote early. We’ve been encouraging all Virginians to come vote, vote early,” Youngkin said earlier in the month when he voted. “We even asked them to bring 10 friends and there’s an opportunity for all legal voters to come vote. And so we encourage everybody to do it.”
But despite the campaign investing considerable time and money into early-voting efforts, the hesitancy among Republicans is clear, with conspiracy theories about election security coming up in conversations with Youngkin’s supporters.
“Honestly, there’s no reason to do mass early voting,” said Colin Hayes, a veteran who brought his son to a Youngkin rally on Monday in Manassas. “I think that a lot of the Democratic-run states have taken advantage of the pandemic to expand early voting to their favor.”
While Hayes and many Republican voters are more likely to show up in force on Election Day, campaign strategists are scrambling to overcome any skepticism about voting early, so they are not at a disadvantage when the early voting period ends on October 30.
McAuliffe and his campaign have long pushed early voting, spending millions, according to a campaign aide, to urge voters to come out early and bank their votes for the Democratic ticket. The campaign has knocked on more than 1 million doors during the over four months of the general election, including 100,000 doors last weekend when volunteers and organizers were pushing Virginians to come out early. And their message to Democrats has been voting in this race is a chance to deal a blow to Republicans aligned with Trump, a candidate who lost the commonwealth by 10 points in 2020. McAuliffe’s campaign has also spent millions on television ads tying Youngkin to Trump, the January 6 riots and the deadly violence in Charlottesville in 2017.
“They are running together,” McAuliffe told CNN on Tuesday. “Donald Trump wants to use this election to get him off the mat to get him ready for 2024.”
The aide said the campaign has pushed a “peer-to-peer texting program” to encourage those voters who requested vote-by-mail ballots to send them in, while also partnering with the Democratic National Committee to “encourage voters to early vote when they visit iwillvote.com by creating an option to request a mail ballot on the same page as location lookup.”
Because of these efforts, top McAuliffe aides said they are expecting record turnout for a non-presidential year election, higher than the 2.6 million voters who cast ballots in Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s win in 2017.
“We always knew this was going to be a tight race. It always is,” McAuliffe said after casting his ballot this month. “This is an off, off year. That’s why Democrats, independents, like-minded Republicans need to get out and vote. That’s why early vote has started here. And there’s a real choice.”
‘Early voting is really important’
The Virginia campaign is unfolding against a backdrop of familiar, yet unfounded, arguments about election integrity and security that Trump and many of his most loyal followers have been making for nearly a year. At the core of the false argument about a stolen election is early voting and mail-in ballots.
From her perch as a Republican volunteer at the polls, Debbie Weber has heard it all.
“They question, ‘Are these Dominion voting machines?'” Weber said, recalling the conversations she has had with some Republicans coming to vote early. “As far as I know, no they’re not, but that doesn’t lessen the concern they have that the voting machines in general can be tampered with.”
Weber, a retiree, has been spending several hours a week sitting outside the early voting office in Prince William County, handing out sample GOP ballots. She said she cast her ballot early and is encouraging others to do the same, trying to make the case that voting before November 2 is a way to protect the sanctity of the ballot.
“To beat the cheaters, if you will, the early voting is encouraged,” said Weber, raising a new and unfounded conspiracy theory that someone could steal her identity through a utility bill and vote on Election Day. “Vote early makes voting easy and cheating hard. That was the design of early voting, at least from the Republican perspective.”
GOP campaign strategists say they are seeing plenty of Republicans casting ballots early and they believe any hesitancy about early voting can be overcome by a greater burst of enthusiasm on Election Day.
“Early voting is really important,” Youngkin said after a Monday afternoon rally in Manassas, which was held across the street from an early voting site for convenience. But he downplayed Republican reluctance to do it.
“I don’t think it’s hesitancy. I don’t think it’s skepticism,” Youngkin told CNN. “I think there are a lot of people who just like going on Election Day and voting. They like the pageantry of showing up when lots of people are at the polls.”
The process of vote-by-mail or early voting, which is deeply ingrained in the culture of many states, is still a fairly new practice in Virginia. Before the 2020 election, voters needed an excuse to cast ballots early, but this year voting started 45 days before Election Day.
“I think it’s a little too long, if I’m going to be honest,” said Theresa Ellis, the only Republican who serves on the Manassas City Council. “It is like an Election Day every day.”
Ellis said she supports the idea behind early voting, but believes the dynamics of a campaign can change over 45 days. She said more Republicans are simply comfortable voting on the final day of the race.
Youngkin campaign advisers say they are encouraged by the early voting turnout from counties that they need to perform strongly in. But in a state where voters are not registered by political party, it’s not entirely clear which side is benefiting the most by the early votes.
Pat Tony, a retiree from Manassas, stood at the Youngkin rally with an “I voted early” sticker on her black jacket. She said she cast her ballot for the Republican candidate last week without any hesitation.
“You hope your health will be good on Election Day, but it may or may not be,” Tony said. “So it’s good to go ahead and make the choice if you know where you stand.”
She dismissed any questions that others in the crowd were echoing about the security of the ballot, saying: “I do not have those concerns. It went into the machine. It got securely locked in.”
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