As the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination continues to claim the 2020 election was stolen, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin is encouraging conservatives to embrace the very voting method that Donald Trump has long decried as fraudulent.
“I need your early vote this year,” Youngkin told Republicans in a June video. “We can’t go into our elections down thousands of votes.”
Youngkin’s plea may indicate a change of heart among Republicans. Or perhaps a change in tactics.
Since at least 2020, the party and its national leaders have argued — with little to no evidence — that allowing voters to cast early or absentee ballots increases the chance of mass voter fraud.
That theory has spread far and wide among the base.
“It isn’t just a belief that absentee ballots and an expanded time frame increase the opportunities for fraud,” Carlton Ballowe, chair of the Nelson County Republican Committee, told The Daily Progress. “It is an indisputable fact.”
After Trump and other national figures scared many voters off from mail-in ballots, the Republican Party of Virginia is trying to assuage their fears.
“This data-driven effort to get Republicans to vote early is how we win in November,” state party Chair Rich Anderson said in a statement for Secure Your Vote Virginia, an initiative that aims to change the minds of Republicans skeptical of early and absentee voting. “We have a clear mission: get in front of as many voters as we can to assure them voting absentee by mail or early in person is easy, secure, and necessary.”
The message from Youngkin and the party is clear: Voting early will help win the legislature.
“If you have a look at the past couple cycles, it’s an area where Republican voters in Virginia and across the country have fallen behind,” Dave Rexrode of Spirit of Virginia, a Youngkin political action committee, told The Daily Progress. “Looking at this election cycle when every vote is going to be critical to success, we felt it was imperative we work with the party and put together a comprehensive plan to engage in all get-out-the-vote operations.”
Since 2016, overwhelmingly more Democrats have chosen to vote early in Virginia than Republicans, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In last year’s midterm elections, 63% of the state’s early votes were cast by Democrats. In 2020, the number was 65%.
Relying on Election Day votes can put a party at a disadvantage, according to J. Miles Coleman, media relations coordinator at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“After Republicans had a disappointing midterm last year, they’re looking at some ways of, ‘What can we do better?’” he told The Daily Progress. “If you can get as many people to vote early as you can, that’s fewer votes you have to turn out on Election Day.”
After redistricting, many of the state’s House and Senate seats will be closely contested this November. If the Republican Secure Your Vote initiative can get more voters to cast a ballot early, Coleman said that could be the difference in several key legislative races.
“Even though this initiative wasn’t in place in 2021, that still didn’t stop Republicans from doing pretty well that year,” Coleman said. “So maybe one of the messages on the Republican side is, ‘OK, if we embrace early absentee voting we can do even better than we did last time.’”
Republicans in Central Virginia, including Ballowe, still expressed skepticism over the security of mail-in and early voting. But they are onboard with Youngkin’s initiative nonetheless.
“Traditionally and historically, Republicans have voted on Election Day,” Darrell Byers, chair of the Fluvanna Republican Committee, told The Daily Progress. “So I think it’s a bold move to break the status quo but also bring numbers up to get voters out there so we can do what needs to be done as it relates to flipping the House and the Senate.”
John Lowry, chair of the Albemarle Republican Committee, said his team is embracing the governor’s initiative with open arms.
“We’re hopeful that early voters will not have a defeatist attitude,” Lowry said. “Youngkin wants people to go out because they think their vote will count.”
But after national leaders have derided absentee ballots for years, suddenly convincing Republicans that early voting is safe and legitimate may be a difficult needle to thread.
“I don’t think Trump is helpful when he constantly talks about how the election was stolen. He’s the one who says it’s fraudulent, illegitimate. That’s why they probably have the word ‘secure’ in the name,” Coleman said, referring to the Secure Your Vote initiative.
“In politics, messaging counts for a lot,” Coleman said. “If they emphasize that this is secure, a lot of those Republicans who would otherwise be more skeptical of it would maybe give it a second look.”
Still, there appears to be a deep skepticism among Republicans about early voting, and about recent laws that have made it easier to vote in Virginia.
In 2020, the legislature and former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam passed a bill to allow no-excuse early voting starting 45 days prior to an election.
That bill to expand voting rights likely helps explain why Virginia was ranked as one of the easiest states to vote in a 2022 study published in the Election Law Journal.
But if Republicans win the legislature this fall, there appears to be an appetite to roll back those rights.
“The absentee ballot thing I’m not a fan of, and I don’t think any of us are fans of a voting season starting 45 days out before the actual election,” Byers said.
“I think a significant majority of our membership would prefer a return to an Election Day with absentee voting only for cause,” Ballowe said. “Everyone who wishes to combat fraud should favor voting at a specific time and place where the process is monitored.”
Yet with the current rules being what they are, Republicans want to take advantage.
“Maybe if Republicans get a trifecta after this year they can revisit some of those laws, but for now, early voting has become more popular with the electorate,” Coleman said. “Republicans probably rightfully want a piece of that real estate.”
First thing’s first. To change those laws, Republicans will need a big turnout this fall. Increasing the party’s early voter percentage may help them get it.
But it won’t be easy if national figures keep casting doubt on the same method that Republicans once championed in California, Utah and elsewhere.
In an interview with Trump just last week, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked the former president if he’d encourage Republicans to vote early and by mail.
“I will, but those ballots get lost also, Sean,” Trump said. “You know, they send them in, and all of a sudden, they’re gone.”