Here’s a prediction for what will happen tonight: Somebody will win and somebody will lose. Because that’s how elections work.
A further prediction, which might be a bit bolder: Nobody will cry foul and claim that the election is rigged, because anyone who knows how elections work knows just how implausible that is; the process is far too decentralized for that. And nobody from the loser’s side will storm the state Capitol to try to overturn the results because we’re all mature, civilized people who understand that sometimes things don’t always go our way, right?
OK, just checking.
Let’s walk through what will happen tonight. This used to be simple, but lately it’s not. This is the most basic lesson of all but sometimes we all need to be taught it again: The most important thing to watch tonight as the votes come in is where the votes are coming from. Historically, the first votes to come in have favored Republicans because small, rural counties – which is to say conservative counties – tend to report first. They simply have fewer votes to count. Over the years, as vote-counting technology has changed, we’ve seen the order of reporting change. In recent years, Chesterfield County – a Richmond suburb that has flipped from red to blue – has often reported early. So don’t get hung up on the running totals early on, no matter what they show. Check the State Board of Elections website to see where they’re from. Or, better yet, come back here to Cardinal News, where I’ll be posting running commentary as the numbers come in.
Now, here’s the really big thing to know: The trend toward early voting really skews our understanding of the results. That’s because the early votes – whether mailed in or cast in person – are counted as part of each locality’s “central absentee precinct” rather than in each voter’s home precinct. That led to misunderstanding during last year’s presidential election and could easily lead to misunderstanding tonight:
- In years past, it hadn’t mattered that much, because there were usually too few absentee votes to make a difference. Last year, though, we saw most Virginians – 59% – vote early. We also saw a sharp partisan divide, with Democrats overwhelmingly voting early and Republicans preferring to vote in person on Election Day. That meant on election night, the early returns – based entirely on the in-person, day-of voting – showed Donald Trump leading in Virginia, which certainly wasn’t expected. He even led in places where no Republican ever expects to win, such as Arlington and Alexandria. Even CNN got caught up in this for a while (yet another reason why you should follow local news media who understand the ground rather than national media; every Virginia journalist covering the race knew exactly what they were seeing). What happened was that, in effect, the Republican votes got counted first, then the Democratic vote got counted later when there was a massive “ballot dump” of all those absentee ballots. That’s not good for democracy, because it engenders unnecessary – and unfounded – suspicion about the process. State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, introduced a bill this past General Assembly to require the State Board of Elections to figure out a way to count early ballots as part of their “home” precinct. It got voted down. Too bad.
Not only does having so many ballots – in many localities most of the ballots – counted in the “absentee precinct” lead to that giant ballot dump, it makes post-election analysis impossible. To understand why a certain candidate won and a certain candidate lost, we need to know where the former did well and the latter did poorly. When almost every vote is counted as part of a home precinct, we can tell. When they’re all clumped together in one big absentee precinct, we can’t. Both parties need this kind of information after the election; those of us trying to understand elections need it on election night. We just won’t get it. Even in a locality where a party’s percentage stays steady, there may be important shifts taking place beneath the surface. In Roanoke, blue-collar precincts such as Southeast once voted Democrat and white-collar ones such as Raleigh Court once voted Republican; now those have reversed as voters have realigned. If a Democrat – or a Republican – does better than expected in Roanoke, where did those votes come from? We simply won’t know. In sports terms, it’s like knowing the final score without ever knowing how those points were scored.
But back to the counting: With in-person, day-of votes counted first, that means the early returns tonight will probably favor Republicans, whether the later returns do or not. Republicans have pushed early voting this year, but it still appears that Democrats are more likely to vote early than Republicans, so those in-person precincts reported first will a) be incomplete and b) skew Republican. Neither side should get too excited until we know more.
Now for the biggest catch of all:
- Fairfax County is going to reverse the order of vote-counting. It will count and report the mail ballots first, then the early votes, then finally count the in-person votes. A new state law requires that the mail ballots and early votes be counted in separate absentee precincts, but says nothing about the order in which they are reported. The Fairfax registar says this order of vote-counting is intended to prevent that late-night “ballot dump.” Instead, we’ll get an early-evening “ballot dump.” Just how early evening that will be is very uncertain. However since Fairfax is the state’s largest locality, whenever those votes come, that will be quite a ballot dump. Fairfax is also very Democratic – it went 69.9% for Joe Biden in 2020, 70.9% for Tim Kaine in 2018, 67.9% for Ralph Northam in 2017. That means those early votes in Fairfax – the most Democratic votes in a Democratic locality – will surely favor Democrats by a wide margin. Given the size of the Fairfax County vote (last year the early vote in Fairfax accounted for 9.2% of the state’s total vote), that may invalidate everything I just said above about how the early vote will skew Republican. The early vote in other localities will skew Republican; in Fairfax, it will skew Democratic. I cannot stress this point enough: The votes tonight will arrive in a different order than we’ve ever seen in Virginia. That is going to make analysis of those numbers very tricky. Instead of the “red mirage” that we saw last year, this year we’ll have a “red mirage” in some localities, and a “blue mirage” in Fairfax (and any other localities that follow that method but haven’t announced it yet). Here’s another prediction: A lot of commentators (especially at the national level) are likely to get things wrong as they try to puzzle out where the vote is coming from. I know where the vote will be coming from and I might even get it wrong myself (when did you last hear a commentator say that?) We simply have zero experience with this sequence of vote-counting. This would all be a lot simpler if the General Assembly had passed Suetterlein’s bill and we had a more traditional order of vote-counting.
When those Fairfax County early votes arrive, whenever that is, here’s what we should know and what we should look for. Last year, Joe Biden took 77.8% of the early vote in Fairfax County en route to winning 54.1% statewide. Since Republicans are more enthusiastic about early voting this year, I’d expect to see McAuliffe’s percentage in those early Fairfax votes be lower than Biden’s, even if McAuliffe somehow manages to match Biden’s overall percentage in Virginia – again, just a matter of in which order the votes get counted. Someone who paid more attention in math class than I did might be able to tell us what the danger threshold for Democrats is. If McAuliffe takes 70% in the Fairfax early votes, is that still sufficient for him to win a majority statewide? What about 65%? At what point should Democrats look at the Fairfax early votes and start reaching for the bourbon instead of the champagne? Some Republicans think anything south of 60% for McAuliffe in the Fairfax mail vote/early vote is bad news for Democrats and anything south of 55% for McAuliffe is a sure win for Youngkin.
In any case, let’s move on. Obviously the marquee race tonight is the governor’s race, followed by the contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general. There’s also the question of which party will control the House of Delegates (the state Senate, now 21-19 Democrats, won’t be on the ballot until 2023).
House of Delegates
Just four years ago, Republicans held what seemed an insurmountable majority of 66 seats to 34 for Democrats. Then Trump happened. Democrats picked up 15 seats in 2017, surprising even themselves, and then six more in 2019 to win a majority for the first time in two decades. Now it’s 55 Democrats and 45 Republicans, which means Republicans will need to flip six seats to regain control. Can they? It’s certainly possible. Keep in mind that all the candidates are running under House lines that Republicans drew after the last census, although there have been a lot of demographic changes since then. The first big question here is the same as it is in the governor’s race: Have suburban voters permanently realigned? The second big one is what will turnout be? Historically, Republicans won some seats where voters cast ballots for Democrats in presidential elections than stayed home in the off-years. That wasn’t the case in 2017 and 2019 when voters were animated by Trump. With Trump out of office (but not necessarily out of the picture), what will we see?
The big race to watch in this part of Virginia is in the New River Valley, where Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, is being challenged by Republican Jason Ballard. That district has historically been a competitive one. Political analyst Chaz Nuttycomb, who specializes in state legislative races, recently tweeted out some potentially interesting numbers. Since 2017, that district’s portion of Montgomery County (which votes Democratic) has lost 1,457 voters. Meanwhile, Giles County (which votes Republican) has gained 539 and Pulaski County (also Republican) has gained 250. All that’s offset by Radford (Democratic), which gained 255. The point is, Democratic localities have lost 1,202 voters and Republican localities have gained 789. Hurst won the first time by 2,037 votes and was re-elected by 1,492. Losing 1,202 votes in Democratic localities while seeing 789 added in Republican localities is not helpful for the Democratic nominee. If we applied those numbers retroactively to Hurst’s 2017 campaign, he’d have still won, but by just 46 votes. If we apply them to his 2019 re-election, he’d have lost and Travis Hite would be the incumbent today.
If Hurst loses, those changes in the electorate will be one of the reasons why. If he wins, he will win in spite of those trends. (Why did Montgomery County, which has been gaining population, lose registered voters? My only guess is that college students who registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election graduated and weren’t replaced.)
No matter what happens in the Hurst-Ballard race, the region will get at least two new legislators. Del. Nick Rush, R-Montgomery County, is retiring; Republican Marie March and Democrat Derek Kitts are running to succeed him. Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Franklin County, was defeated in the Republican primary by Wren Williams, who now faces Democrat Bridgett Craighead.
School board races
There are other races around the region worth watching. In many localities, this year’s multiple controversies involving schools – virtual versus in-person, masks or no masks, transgender policies, critical race theory – have produced conservative candidates for school board seats that are often uncontested. Some of the most contentious debates over school policies have taken place in Franklin County, which has two incumbents – Penny Blue and G.B. Washburn – being challenged by candidates that The Roanoke Times says are “being boosted together by the Patriot Network of Franklin County, an activist group opposed to mask mandates.” In some places, challengers are running write-in campaigns because they emerged too late to get on the ballot. That’s the case in Botetourt County, where there are two write-in candidates running on anti-mask platforms, one of them running against the board’s chairwoman. This is hardly a comprehensive list, just an acknowledgement that in many localities school board races will be more competitive than they traditionally have been.
And then there are some important elections that involve no candidates at all.
Amherst County and Emporia are voting on whether to allow off-track betting parlors. The one in Amherst would be in Madison Heights, just across the James River from Lynchburg.
Danville and Pittsylvania County are holding separate votes on whether to raise the sales tax by 1% to generate funds for school construction. Danville is also voting on a $141 million bond issue for school construction. This is an opinion column so here’s my opinion: Here we see a consequence of the General Assembly refusing to pass the $4 billion bond issue for school construction that state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has regularly proposed. Absent a larger state role in school construction, some of the poorest localities in the state are forced to raise their own taxes. Danville and Pittsylvania will send a very negative signal about their commitment to education if they vote these questions down, but they’d both be unnecessary if Northern Virginia Democrats had shown more interest in the school funding challenges that communities downstate are facing.
Three localities – Nottoway County in Southside, plus Mathews County and Middlesex County near the Chesapeake Bay – are voting on whether to move Confederate monuments. Not a single county that held a monument referendum last year voted to move them; I suspect not a single one will this year. That may be the easiest prediction to make this election year.