Early voters enter the registrar's office in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Cleta Mitchell – the Washington Post identified her as “a top Republican legal strategist,” MSNBC called her a “Trump coup attorney” – recently created a stir when she told a GOP donor retreat that the party should make it harder for college students to vote.

What got less attention was that she said if Republicans win control of the General Assembly this November, then it’s possible for them to undo the state’s early voting laws. “If the Republicans are to hold the state House and reclaim the state Senate, then maybe it’s possible to get rid of 45 days of early voting in Virginia,” she said.

She didn’t say how many days Republicans should get rid of – all 45 days or just some. However, it’s clear that some Republicans seeking office this fall want to do away with all of them. In House District 53, which runs from northern Bedford County through Amherst County to southern Nelson County, both candidates seeking the Republican nomination want to do away with virtually all early voting. We have always had some early voting, in the form of absentee voting for which you officially had to state a reason why you couldn’t make it to the polls; what changed is the institution of what’s often called “no excuse” absentee voting. That’s what both Tim Griffin and Sarah Mays want to do away with – and they’re not the only ones.

On the one hand, this isn’t surprising: Former President Donald Trump has spent much of his post-presidency railing against early voting.

On the other hand, the more interesting hand, the Republicans who are dead-set against early voting are working against their own political interests because it was Glenn Youngkin’s embrace of early voting that helped him win the governorship in 2021 (and bring in a Republican House with him).

Yes, Democrats were generally far more willing to embrace early voting than Republicans were – particularly in 2020 when Trump was bashing it left and right. In 2021, though, Youngkin made a point of pushing early voting, particularly in Republican-heavy Southwest Virginia. State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, appeared in a video talking up the advantages of voting early.

So let’s look at the math.

Big picture first: The reason Youngkin won was that turnout in Republican-voting localities was up more than it was in Democratic-voting localities.

The Virginia Public Access Project produced a helpful graphic illustrating all that but here are the highlights. In Petersburg, turnout was exactly the same in 2021 as it was in 2017. In Hampton, Norfolk and Richmond, it was up by just one percentage point in each locality. In Charlottesville, it was down one percentage point from four years earlier. In Portsmouth, it was down two. Meanwhile, in Republican localities there were big jumps in turnout – often double-digit jumps.

Not all that increase was due to early voting, but a good bit of it was, so I’m surprised that some Republicans want to do away with the very thing that helped them win.

Let’s start with Goochland County. It had the highest voter turnout in the state – 71%, up from 61% four years early.

This is also a strongly Republican county where about two-thirds of the voters cast Republican ballots. In Goochland, if you have a bigger turnout, you get more Republican voters. And that’s exactly what happened between 2017 and 2021.

The Democratic vote went up by 999 votes, but the Republican vote went up by 3,065 votes.

So where were these “extra” Republican votes coming from? Some were “new” Republican voters showing up at the polls, but a lot were Republicans casting early votes. In Goochland, 31.15% of the votes were cast early, one of the highest percentages in the state – higher even than some strongly Democratic localities. (Again, thanks to VPAP for doing the math). In Norfolk, just 14.46% of the votes were cast early. In Richmond, 17.1% of the votes were. In Petersburg, 17.79% were. In Alexandria, the figure was 23.7%. In Arlington, 25.08%.

Goochland Republicans apparently loved early voting, so much so that they voted early at more than twice the rate of voters in strongly Democratic Norfolk.

Here’s another way to show that: In 2021, early votes were tabulated in a “central absentee precinct.” Since then, legislation sponsored by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, requires that those votes be counted as part of their home precinct – this is a good thing in the interest of understanding election returns – but the now-discarded 2021 method proves useful here. In 2021, 63.8% of the early votes in Goochland were Republican votes. In terms of actual numbers, 3,503 of those early voters in Goochland County went for Youngkin, 1,974 for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Between 2017 and 2021, the total vote in Goochland was up by 4,011.

In theory, 3,503 of those 4,011 new votes were Republican early voters. In practice, I doubt that was the case, of course, but the point is that in Goochland County the early voting was undoubtedly good for Republicans.

Goochland wasn’t alone, either. Mathews County, over by the Chesapeake Bay, is even more Republican than Goochland is. Goochland voted 65.9% Republican, Mathews voted 71.6% Republican. It saw an even higher percentage of early voters than Goochland did – 34.7%, rivalling the 35.6% in strongly Democratic Falls Church. And once again, when we look more closely at that “central absentee precinct” of early voters in Mathews County – it was more than two-thirds Republican.

Republican voters in Mathews County loved early voting, too.

The Republican vote in Mathews County went up by 962 votes. However, 1,562 of the 2,269 early votes cast in Mathews were Republican. In theory, early voting accounted for all of the increase in the Republican vote in Mathews County – and a little more.

Now let’s look at a different type of county – James City County. In 2017, it went narrowly Democratic. In 2021, it went narrowly Republican. There were 8,937 early Republican votes in the county that year. Youngkin carried the county by 2,212 votes. Mathematically speaking, the Republican push for early votes enabled Youngkin to flip James City County from blue to red.

Yet more evidence of how early voting benefited Republicans more than it did Democrats in many places: In Democratic Roanoke, 17.4% of the vote was cast early. In Republican Roanoke County, 21.09% was. In even more Republican Botetourt County, the early voting rate was a smidge higher: 21.88%. In Republican Salem, the early voting rate was higher still – 24.22%.

So if many Republican localities have embraced early voting more enthusiastically than their Democratic counterparts, and if that early voting has demonstrably helped elect Republican candidates, why, then, do some Republicans want to do away with it? Or at least restrict it?

We can’t dismiss the role of ideology, of course. Some Republicans are just philosophically against anything other than the traditional one-day Election Day – even if that means the risk of gambling an entire election away. Party leaders may be starting to re-think that; the recent “autopsy” on the 2022 mid-terms commissioned by the Republican National Commiteee concluded that the party needs to do a better job of persuading voters to vote early.

Here’s another way to look at it: In Virginia, the voters most reluctant to adopt early voting haven’t been Republicans statewide, not from the looks of places such as Goochland and Mathews and many others. It’s been a specific sub-set of Republican — rural Republicans west of the Blue Ridge; no doubt one reason why Pillion recorded that video in 2021. In Buchanan County, just 7.10% of the votes were cast early. In Smyth County, just 7.60% were. In Lee County, just 7.97%. (This VPAP chart illustrates the trends.)

Meanwhile, these counties had some of the lowest voter turnouts, too. Their turnouts were often much, much higher than four years before, but they were still quite low by statewide standards. Buchanan County, for instance, posted a turnout of 40% – up from 30% – but still lower than all but one other locality in the state. (That was Democratic voting Petersburg, at 38%).

If I were a Republican operative – and I’m most assuredly not an operative for either party – I wouldn’t be trying to get rid of early voting. I’d be trying to encourage it. In the most Republican part of the state – Southwest Virginia – there are clearly a lot of uncast votes. In 2017, Buchanan County had a turnout of 30% while Goochland County was more than twice that, at 61%. In 2017, Galax, Norton, Russell County and Tazewell County all had turnout of just 37%. They posted big percentage increases for Youngkin in 2021 but still the best of them, Russell County, only saw 52% turnout. (In Russell, early voting account for nearly two-thirds of the extra turnout).

What if all those localities routinely saw turnout at the level of other Republican-voting communities, such as Goochland? If Buchanan County’s turnout percentage matched Goochland, that might mean 3,400 or more extra Republican votes. That wouldn’t elect more Republicans in Southwest Virginia; that part of the state is so sufficiently Republican that Republicans can easily win, whether it’s a low turnout or high turnout election. But in a close statewide election, a few thousand extra Republican votes might make the difference. (Youngkin’s statewide margin in 2021 was 63,688 votes; Jason Miyares’ winning margin in the attorney general’s race was just 44,146 votes. In 2013, Democrat Mark Herring’s margin over Republican Mark Obenshain in the attorney general’s race was just 165 votes).

Republicans ought to be looking at early voting as a way to dramatically increase turnout in Southwest Virginia as a small insurance policy against Democratic gains elsewhere (and a way to increase the region’s declining influence); increasing early voting is the easiest way to do that. By that measure, the Republican candidates who want to do away with early voting are working against their party’s own interests – and perhaps the interest of Southwest Virginia.

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