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Virginia Primary Turnout Dips, But Still Among Highest in Recent History

Kid watches older man cast ballot
Voters casting ballots in last November's election. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

About 8 percent of registered voters turned out  for Tuesday’s Democratic primary in Virginia, down about two points from 2017’s record. 

But  data from the Virginia Public Access Project show that percentage is still  among the highest tallies for Democratic primaries since the early 1990s. In all, turnout dipped about 11% from 2017, to about 480,000 votes cast.  

Former President Donald Trump caused record turnout in Virginia races during his term, a phenomenon that helped Democrats flip the General Assembly and hold on to statewide offices. The latest figures are seen as an early indicator of whether that strength will continue in November, when the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, will face off against Republican Glenn Youngkin – and in turn, in 2022, when Republicans will try to wrest back control of Congress.  

Early reports of sleepy primary polling places  fueled social media chatter on Tuesday of low enthusiasm. Republican Party chair Rich Anderson alluded to the reports in his statement on Tuesday.  

“Despite the longest early voting period ever, no photo identification requirements, and near-universal vote-by-mail, Democrats across the Commonwealth are fretting about low turnout,” Anderson said in a statement on Tuesday. “It’s safe to say that Republicans are the most excited group in Virginia for Terry McAuliffe’s primary win.” 

But Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, said the numbers were a solid showing given busy summer schedules, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, and a relatively uncompetitive top-of-the-ballot race between McAuliffe and four other candidates.  

"The reality is that turnout numbers are never very high for primaries in June in Virginia,” he said.  

Farnsworth said it was impossible to divine from the June numbers what would happen in November. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a critic of Trump, was more decisive.  

“The turnout was solid and a good sign for Democrats,” he said.  

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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