A screenshot of the video where state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, encourages Republicans in Southwest Virginia to vote early.

Here’s what YouTube has told me recently I should be interested in:

  • The video to “Scream,” the new single by Mandolynne, a monoymous Canadian singer with an ethereal voice and a traumatic history that she sings about with brutal honesty.
  • Jason Isbell’s new album, “Georgia Blue,” a series of cover songs about the state.
  • “Bank Your Vote!”, a get-out-the-vote video by state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County.

One of these things is not like the other.

This is a rhetorical trick: Mandolynne and Jason Isbell are both musicians, but Isbell’s album is almost as political as Pillion’s video. Isbell recorded these songs in honor of Georgia turning blue in the 2020 presidential election.

However you group them, our focus today is Pillion’s video, even though it doesn’t have much of a beat, but does have some nifty camera work and a lot of relevance to the election we’re about to have. Or, technically, are already having.

“If you’re like me and have a crazy, unpredictable schedule, don’t miss voting,” Pillion says into the camera. “Vote early.”

In those first four seconds, Pillion delivers a very different message than we’ve been accustomed to hearing from Republicans. Democrats have generally been the ones pushing for, and embracing, early voting. Donald Trump spent much of 2020 railing against early voting, particularly voting by mail (something the military and other absentee voters have long been doing, just at a much lower level). He’s continued to attack early voting after leaving office, telling the Conservative Political Action Conference that Election Day should be just that – a single day, not a whole season. Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania County, said that if Republicans ever regained control of the General Assembly, he’d like to see Virginia’s early voting law repealed.

That’s not the message that Virginia Republicans are delivering this year, though. Led by gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin, Virginia Republicans are now pushing early voting with what appears to be the same fervor as Democrats – perhaps even a little bit more.

Youngkin himself voted early, forgoing the traditional Election Day pageantry of the candidate going to the polls to cast a vote for himself. We’ve seen tweets from former House Speaker Kirk Cox casting his ballot. And now this video from Pillion, which is aimed specifically at Republican voters in Southwest Virginia.

Why this turnaround?

Some of it may simply be practicality. Elections are ultimately a physics exercise, in which campaigns try to figure out how much energy is required to move a voter from his or her place on the sofa to the polls. It’s a lot easier to do that over a longer period of time – Virginia has a 45-day early voting window that closes Oct. 30 – than to try to do it all within a 13-hour window on a specific day. (Polls on Election Day are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.)

Some of it may be that Republican voters this year appear more energized than Democratic ones, so Republicans are smart to take advantage of that enthusiasm while it lasts.

Some of it may simply be that Youngkin is not Trump and not prone to conspiracy theories about election-stealing (even if he does prattle on about “election integrity” to keep the Trumpians animated). He seems more businesslike, and this is simply business.

Whatever the reason, the message is clear: Virginia Republicans are now on board with early voting. At least officially.

CNN recently had a story about early voting in Virginia, and how Republican campaigns are encountering some hesitancy among their voters, who have been schooled by Trump to be suspicious of anything they don’t know. It quoted one Republican supporter at a Youngkin early-voting rally: “Honestly, there’s no reason to do mass early voting.” Here’s a curious case of conservatives arguing against the free market, because the marketplace shows that voters clearly prefer early voting. Wherever it’s been introduced, people have taken advantage of the opportunity. In 1992, only 7% of the votes in the presidential election were cast early. By 2016, as laws changed, some 40.8% of the presidential ballots were cast early – and that was before the pandemic and before Trump started undermining elections in general. In 2020, between the pandemic and new laws in more places, 69% of the ballots were cast some way other than the traditional method of showing up on a single day in November, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Virginia, the figure was 59%, according to the State Board of Elections.

With most of the adult population vaccinated (though not nearly enough), that percentage will likely come down some this year, but it’s clear that a lot of voters like the convenience of early voting. Why should anyone be surprised? Americans like convenience, period. Why go to the movies at a particular time when you can stay at home and watch whatever you want whenever you want on Netflix? Why stand in line on your way to or from work on a Tuesday in November when you can pop by the registrar’s office while you’re out running errands anytime in the fall?

What’s different this year is that Democrats and Republicans are turning out in more equal numbers for early voting. By “more equal” I don’t mean exactly equal. Virginia doesn’t register voters by party so it’s impossible to say exactly how many Democrats and how many Republicans have voted. However, if you have enough statistics, you can make some good guesses, and the Virginia Public Access Project has. Working with the firm L2Political, it’s calculated that in 2020 Democrats accounted for 67.5% of the early voters and Republicans 30.7% (technically this is a separate category from those who voted by mail; this is those who showed up at the registrar’s office). So far this year, the numbers appear to be 56.8% Democratic and 40.8% Republican.

If that’s so, the Democrats are currently in the lead; if Republicans win, it will be because of their Election Day turnout. If you’re a Republican, you might be encouraged by these early numbers, but why leave things to chance when everything from bad weather to a sick kid to a late assignment at work can keep someone from voting? You want to bank votes now, if you can.

That task for Republicans seems especially urgent in Southwest Virginia. Given the partisan split in early voting last year, and the strongly Republican tilt of Southwest Virginia, that’s where early voting was lowest last year. The absolute lowest percentage in the state was in Lee County, where 30% voted absentee, although that was still up from 8% four years prior. By contrast, in Falls Church 85% of the ballots were cast some way other than showing up at the traditional polls.

We see similar patterns this time around – with early voting highest in (Democratic-voting) Northern Virginia and lowest in (Republican-voting) Southwest Virginia. According to figures compiled by VPAP, some 76,606 have either already voted or applied to by mail in the 10th Congressional District in Northern Virginia, followed by 74,692 in the 7th Congressional District anchored in the Richmond suburbs, and 70,661 in the 8th Congressional District in Northern Virginia. All Democratic districts. By contrast, the least enthusiastic early-voting district is the most Republican – the 9th District of Southwest Virginia, where just 40,480 have voted. And nearly 15% of those – 5,866 – come from Montgomery County and Radford, the two blue islands in the otherwise red sea of the 9th, which means maybe only 34,614 votes have been cast in distinctly Republican localities. If you’re Youngkin, you don’t want to make inroads into Loudoun County only to have Lee County let you down. Hence, Pillion’s video.

“More than ever, it’s important for us to turn out the vote in Southwest, and we can’t wait for Election Day to do it,” Pillion says in the video. “I believe we can win this election for Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares and take back the House of Delegates, but it’s going to take every single vote in Southwest Virginia to win this thing. If we don’t show, we can’t win.”

Just swap out the names, and the geography, and that’s a message about early voting that a Democrat might be delivering. Instead, we have a Democratic PAC that’s actively trying to discourage Republican voters in Southwest Virginia from voting. The world is turned upside down. On the plus side, Jason Isbell has a killer version of “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.