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Read more VPM News coverage of the historic 2023 elections in Virginia.

Youngkin pushes early voting, despite GOP skepticism

Two people stand at voting booths facing away from each other with the numbers 4 and 3 on them
Carlos Bernate
For VPM News File
Voters cast their ballots June 20 at Midlothian High School during Virginia's primary elections.

Top Democrats in the General Assembly were quick to knock Youngkin’s embrace of a tactic that his party had sought to roll back as recently as January.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced an ad campaign Tuesday aimed at encouraging Republicans to vote early in November’s state legislative elections.

His Secure Your Vote initiative aims to enroll Republicans on the permanent absentee voter list, using digital ads and a website. It comes as many top Republicans have tried to get their voters to embrace a tactic that became a target for conspiracy theories perpetuated by former Republican President Donald Trump.

The majority of Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly voted against loosening early voting rules in 2020, when they were in the minority in both chambers. Conspiracy theories surrounding that year’s presidential election only deepend GOP distrust of early voting, according to national polling from Pew.

But Youngkin encouraged supporters to vote early in his successful 2021 campaign for governor. And in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday, he urged the party to embrace the tactic in this year’s legislative races, with the commonwealth’s divided General Assembly up for grabs.

“I'm tired of us going into elections down thousands of votes,” Youngkin said.

In a meeting with reporters Tuesday in Richmond, staffers on Youngkin’s political team, Spirit of Virginia, said Republican General Assembly candidates will run on many of the same issues that he emphasized in his 2021 win — education, public safety and the cost of living.

But Heather Williams, interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, argued in an interview that the playbook is stale.

“Roe has fallen,” she said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion last year. “It's fundamentally a different environment.”

Williams pointed to Democrats’ takeover of legislative chambers in other states, including Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, as proof that momentum is on the party’s side.

Top Democrats in the General Assembly were also quick to knock Youngkin’s early voting pitch. They noted that in January, House Republicans uniformly voted to trim Virginia’s current 45-day early voting period down to two weeks. That bill failed in a Senate subcommittee.

“It’s blatant hypocrisy,” said Del. Don Scott (D–Portsmouth). “They are doing this whole push to pull the wool over our constituent’s eyes and hide from the fact that they’ve worked to make it harder for Virginians to vote at every turn.”

Matt Moran, executive director of Spirit of Virginia, said all Republican candidates were behind Youngkin’s early voting push. But he said it didn’t necessarily mean the party had changed its policy position on the topic.

“The rules are the rules, and it’s time for us to play,” Moran said.

Asked how Youngkin would break through to early voting skeptics, Dave Rexrode, the PAC’s chairperson, said they would rely on trusted voices to communicate their message.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, said Youngkin was smart to emphasize early voting.

“Every early vote submitted allows candidates to focus on potential supporters who might not vote at all without greater encouragement,” he wrote in an email.

Republicans need to win four out of seven toss-up Senate seats to evenly split the chamber, which is currently controlled by Democrats, according to Spirit of Virginia staffers. In that scenario, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican, would be the tie-breaking vote. In the House, Youngkin’s PAC has identified six seats as toss-ups that Republicans need to win to stay in the majority.

Rexrode said the team would also use machine learning and artificial intelligence to help model voter behavior and better target their messaging.

Williams said the DLCC will release its top targets for November later this week.

Corrected: July 11, 2023 at 8:26 PM EDT
A previous version of this story misstated the position Heather Williams holds with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.