By John Haughey
More than 320,000 Virginians have cast ballots in the commonwealth’s Nov. 7 local and state elections, which are being closely watched nationwide in what is being called “the first election of the 2024 campaign cycle.”
According to data supplied by the Virginia Department of Elections and published by the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), 320,817 had cast early ballots in the election by the close of business on Oct. 19, including nearly 180,000 in-person and more than 140,000 by mail.
The 45-day early voting period began Sept. 22 and ends Nov. 4, the Saturday before Virginia’s “off-year” election, one of four states where voters will cast odd-year ballots this fall—Louisianans did so Oct. 14—but the only one projected to be competitive with control of both state house chambers on the line.
In fact, according to FiveThirtyEight, Virginia “has the only highly competitive state legislature” in the nation right now. “As a result,” the election rating service states, “only Virginia looks to see much drama” in its 2023 elections.
On Virginia’s Nov. 7 ballot are all 100 seats in the purple commonwealth’s House of Delegates, now led by the GOP 52-48, and all 40 seats in the state Senate, where Democrats hold a 22-18 advantage.
Bellwether Virginia’s elections are being intensely observed by politicos across the country for smoke signals and tea leaves that may presage national trends next year.
If so, several possible patterns that could signal a broader movement in 2024 appear to be surfacing in Virginia—record campaign spending, abortion, and economy are top issues, and voter enthusiasm is lagging compared to 2020 or even 2022.
Big Money, Big Issues
According to VPAP and analyses by OpenSecrets and the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism (VCIJ), more than $54.5 million had been raised by 443 General Assembly candidates and 543 state-registered PACs through Sept. 12.
More difficult to tally is the millions pouring into state PACs and issue-orientated entities by national organizations. Under Virginia law, 501(c)(4) nonprofits aren’t required to disclose donors.
The general consensus is about $100 million will ultimately be spent by campaigns, PACs, and interest groups by Nov. 7, more than double 2019’s General Assembly election spending.
Democrats are largely campaigning on abortion, with Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban denounced from stumps statewide.
Republicans, following Mr. Youngkin’s 2021 campaign format, are touting his “common sense” and “moderate” abortion proposal while focusing on parental rights in education.
Polls show, however, that Virginians are more interested in the economy than any other issue.
According to a Wason Center/Christopher Newport University Sept. 28-Oct. 11 survey of 800 likely voters published Oct. 17, the top issue for 27 percent of respondents is the economy and inflation, followed by abortion at 17 percent and K-12 education at 12 percent.
Top issues for Republicans and Independents in the poll were the economy at 41 percent and inflation and 30 percent. For Democrat survey respondents, abortion was the top issue at 25 percent.
But in what could be a warning sign for Youngkin-led candidates campaigning on his 15-week abortion ban, only 39 percent of the 800 respondents support it.
The poll confirms no one knows what will happen on Nov. 7, with 42 percent saying that were voting for Democrats, 41 percent for Republicans, and 17 percent undecided.
Voter Enthusiasm … Uncertain
Turnout for Louisiana’s Oct. 14 “jungle primary,” which had races for governor and eight proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot, was the lowest for a Bayou State election in a dozen years, with Democrats, in particular, not engaged.
There are indications turnout for Virginia’s General Assembly elections could reflect a similar, if less prominent, pattern.
If current trends stay true, turnout may fall around or even short of the 42.4 percent who voted in 2019’s General Assembly elections and come nowhere near the 75 percent who cast ballots in 2020 and near-50 percent who did so in 2022’s midterms.
The deadline for Virginia’s 8.5 million eligible voters to register for the Nov. 7 election was Oct. 16. More than 6.1 million have signed on to cast ballots, according to VPAP.
However, when Democrats held both chambers between 2019-21, they adopted same-day in-person registration at early-voting and Election Day polling sites.
Previously, voter registration ended 21 days before an election. Those who same-day register and vote must cast in-person provisional ballots to be reviewed by elections officials and party representatives before being tallied.
In 2022—the first election it was implemented—25,353 Virginians voted using same-day registration provisional ballots, with 96 percent passing muster, according to the Virginia Department of Elections (DOE).
While the same-day-registration-and-vote factor throws a wrench in turnout prognostications, with less than two weeks before the election, there are indications voters aren’t all that enthused.
In 2019, Virginia’s last statewide General Assembly election, 31,000 new voters registered the preceding September. DOE reports only 19,000 did so this September.
There were 5.628 million voters registered for Virginia’s 2019 General Assembly elections, with 2.384 million, or 42.4 percent, casting ballots. More than 144,300 did so during the early voting period or with mail-in “absentee” ballots.
For 2020’s election, which included the presidential campaign, there were 5.976 million Virginians registered to vote. A whopping 4.486 million did so, a 75-percent turnout, with 2.687 million casting early votes or mail-in ballots during that COVID-altered election.
In the 2022 midterms, 6.132 million Virginians were registered, with slightly more than 3 million doing so, a 49.28-percent turnout that included more than 992,000 early votes or mail-in “absentee” ballots.
As of Oct. 1, 2023, there were 6.107 million registered Virginians, a 25,000 decline from 2022. As of Oct. 19, 4.7 percent had cast early in-person and mail-in votes. More than 218,316 “absentee,” or mail-in ballots have been requested and can be requested through Oct. 27.
While trends portend a low 40-something-percent turnout at or near 2019’s tally, the same-day registration-and-vote availability could spur a late surge because, if there’s one thing for sure, everyone in Virginia knows there’s an election afoot with campaign advertising dominating the airwaves.