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Leading, Trailing, or Tied: Turnout and Enthusiasm the "Name of the Game" in 2021 Elections

With expanding voting access, campaigns and issue advocacy groups have had more difficulty comparing turnout numbers to previous elections.
Jahd Khalil
With expanding voting access, campaigns and issue advocacy groups have had more difficulty comparing turnout numbers to previous elections.

Virginia had trended more Democratic in recent years, but polls show a tight race for governor between Republican Glenn Youngkin and former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. With hardening polarization and an off-year election, enthusiasm and turnout with the parties’ bases will consequential in determining the election, voters and analysts say.

“There's a cost to voting, right? The cost of actually informing yourself, the cost of possibly having to stay in line, stuff like that,” said Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.

Democratic complacency in the wake of over a decade of victories in statewide races could factor into prospective voters’ calculus.

“If you think something is inevitable, if you think that someone is going to win, then you're not going to want to pay the cost of behavior or of your time to actually go through and help that person out,” said McGowen.

Ken Schaal lives on the highway leading to Hanover’s polling place, so he’s set up a number of signs. On a Sunday afternoon when the polls are open, he was working on a McAullife sign, but was having some difficulty.

“I think I’ve got a bit too much wind and I’ve got to get some more ties,” he said. The retired solar contractor living in the conservative county north of Richmond has a number of signs, motivated by Republican ads on medians and front lawns across the county.

“There's way too many Republican signs out there, which indicates enthusiasm.”

A recent poll by Monmouth University said Democratic enthusiasm actually has gone down since September. Presidential elections get a lot of spectacle. Off-year elections like this one get less attention, which causes issues for candidates and advocacy groups trying to turn out voters.

“There is always a drop-off and it varies from year to year. It varies according to whether it's just a state legislative election or whether there's also a gubernatorial election, but there is almost always at least a 15 or 20%,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, who founded the Environmental Voter Project. “States that have prominent off-year elections - like Virginia, New Jersey, Kentucky, Louisiana - you'll even have a 15 or 20% drop off from the midterm.”

In 2017, turnout was 47.6%, down from 72% in 2016, according to Department of Elections figures.

Virginia’s expansion of voting access has made it more difficult to make comparisons however. Sunday voting is now permitted, there’s no-excuse absentee voting and mail-in ballots come with pre-paid envelopes for voters to return them to registrars.

At Hanover’s polling place, a large group of voters came after church to cast their ballots.

“It's a beautiful day to be out,” said Robert Cornelius, the vice chair of the Hanover Republican Committee about the chilly but sunny weather befit of a pumpkin patch commercial.”

Many Republicans think this is their year after losing control of their footholds in the House of Delegates and state senate in 2019, where Democrats have passed many parts of an ambitious agenda.

“The current General Assembly has put a lot of laws in place that don't represent a lot of voters out in Virginia,” said Cornelius, who cast doubt on whether 45 days of early voting were necessary.

Republican early votes are up, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks election data and provides political analysis.

Plenty of Democrats are coming out, and in recent days Democratic strongholds in Northern Virginia have seen busy early voting schedules. Holly Young thought she would be out of town, so she’s in Richmond casting her vote early.

“We felt really strongly about the governor election being really close this year, or seems to be close,” she said. “I don't love the Democratic nominee, but I felt like we really have to vote. It's very important”

Young says she’s noticed a lack of McAuliffe signs around the state, which bothers her. She said Republicans have often held power in Virginia, so this isn’t the time for Democrats to take recent victories for granted.

Regardless of where McAuliffe or Youngkin are polling, they both have an incentive to tell their voters to come out. For McAuliffe, it's that the election is too close to take the eye off the ball, and for Youngkin, its that the Governor’s mansion is in reach of the GOP after years of defeats.

“The guy that's that may lose or that is lower in the polls has to say the election is close to get that enthusiasm up. And the person that may be ahead in the polls has to say the election is close, so they don't have that apathy,” said McGowen, the University of Richmond professor. "That's just the name of the game."

Stinnett and others have used another tactic.

“We actually use a little bit of peer pressure. We let them know, ‘oh, there are lots of people on your street who are going to be voting,’ or ‘turn out is going to be high,’” he said. “sometimes we even remind them that whether they vote or not is public record. The reason why that's such an impactful technique is that even people who don't vote, usually buy into the societal norm, that voting is a good thing, deep down.”

About half a million people have already cast their ballot, as of Department of Elections data updated on October 20th.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.