A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A sign at the Troutville precinct in Botetourt County. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

It’s Election Day!

Or, more accurately, it’s the opening day of early voting in Virginia, a fairly recent innovation (2020) that Republicans first resisted and now have embraced — at least Gov. Glenn Youngkin has, and at least for this year.

One of the many questions about what Republicans would do if they win full control of the General Assembly is whether or how much they would try to roll back Virginia’s early voting period — 45 days, tied with Vermont for the third-longest in the country. For what it’s worth, the states with longer early voting periods are not exactly liberal states. Minnesota (which tilts blue) has 46 days but so does South Dakota, which is politically colored in the brightest shades of red. The state with the longest early voting period is the swing state of Pennsylvania, with 50 days. I’ve written before that Republicans have more to gain out of early voting than Democrats — maybe not in legislative elections, but in statewide elections.

Youngkin has pushed early voting this year for a very practical reason: He needs to pump up the Republican vote and that’s easier to do if you have 45 days in which to get voters to the polls than if you have to do it all in one. He won the governorship two years ago because of unusually high Republican turnout; he’ll need the party to replicate that to win this year.

Can he?

We’ll know a lot more come the evening of Nov. 7. For now, I won’t hazard a guess. For now, all indications point to things being close, with the majority in both the House (now in Republican hands) and the Senate (now controlled by Democrats) hanging in the balance.

Several points worth making about this year’s election:

First, these are consequential elections. Do you want the state’s abortion laws to stay the same or should there be restrictions? A Republican General Assembly would be able to pass restrictions that a Republican governor would eagerly sign; if just one chamber stays Democratic, nothing will change. Do you want state taxes cut? Once again, same answer. Pick a bunch of other questions, and the same thing applies. If Republicans win control, they’ll be able to pass bills they haven’t been able to for years. If Democrats win at least one chamber, or even both chambers, they won’t be able to get anything passed without a Republican governor’s OK but they would be able to stop a lot of Republican bills. Where you fall on the political spectrum determines which outcome is most desireable.

Put another way, a Republican sweep of both houses would likely usher in two years of Republican activism, and further elevate Youngkin’s profile nationally (perhaps even all the way to the White House, under some scenarios). A Democratic victory in at least one chamber would make Youngkin’s final two years in office pretty frustrating. A Democratic victory in both chambers would certainly embolden Democrats and really make Youngkin’s final two years very frustrating.

Second, it’s wrong to say that “all 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs.” All 140 are on the ballot, but not all are up for grabs. In the 40-member Senate, five candidates are running unopposed. In the 100-member House, the number is even higher: 32 House candidates have no opposition on the ballot. That means more than one-quarter of the seats in the next legislature are already decided before a single vote has ever been cast.

In eight cases (seven in the House, one in the Senate), this also means new legislators will enter the General Assembly without having to face anyone in a general election. That’s a function of lopsided districts where winning a party nomination is tantamount to winning the election. We see that on both sides of the aisle. In House District 39 in Franklin County and part of Roanoke County, Republican Will Davis faced a primary opponent but now no one in the general election. Same for Republican Tom Garrett in House District 56 east of Lynchburg. Same for Republican John McGuire in Senate District 10 that runs from Hanover County to Appomattox County. Meanwhile, in House District 54 in the Charlottesville area, Democrat Katrina Callsen has a free ride after making it through a three-way primary.

In many other localities, there are multiple candidates on the ballot but the districts are so Democratic or so Republican that the winner is pretty obvious. Technically they’re “up for grabs,” but not really. Don’t blame redistricting for that, either. The maps we’re using for the first time this year are the first Virginia has had that weren’t drawn by the majority party; they were drawn by two “special masters” appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court, one a Democrat, the other a Republican. They are actually quite geographically logical districts (to the extent that any map can be and still comply with court rulings) and were drawn without regard for where incumbents lived. Instead, the problem is simply how polarized voters are geographically. You simply can’t draw a Democratic district west of the New River Valley and you can’t draw a Republican one in much of Northern Virginia.

For a full list of who’s on the ballot, see our election page.

So how many truly competitive districts do we really have? Not many. Earlier this summer, the Virginia Public Access Project — a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks data on Virginia politics — used previous election returns to estimate that there are four competitive Senate races and seven competitive House districts. If that’s so, only 7.8% of the districts on the ballot are truly “up for grabs.”

Some political ratings services are even more skeptical. Cnalysis.com, run by Blacksburg-based Chaz Nuttycombe, lists only three House seats and two Senate seats as toss-ups. True, there are others listed as “tilt Democratic” or “tilt Republican” that are still competitive, even if there’s a possible favorite — so it sort of depends on how you define “competitive.” I notice that Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is a bit more open-minded about how many swing districts there are, listing 10 House seats and six Senate seats as competitive. So depending on your point of view, we have between three and 10 House seats in the balance and between two and six Senate seats.

In any case, the point is that most General Assembly seats aren’t competitive — and the seats that are considered the most competitive are generally in the urban crescent, not Southwest or Southside. All this can be somewhat disorienting for those of us who live in districts that aren’t considered competitive — there are battles royale taking place that will determine the direction of the commonwealth but we really don’t have a say in them. An awful lot of money is going to be poured into a relative handful of districts — maybe a literal handful, depending on how things go.

That’s also one reason (a double standard for female candidates is surely another) why there’s been far more attention given to the Democratic House candidate in Henrico County whose online sex tapes were exposed than to the indictment of Del. Matt Fariss of Campbell County on two felony charges in a hit-and-run case. That House district in the Richmond suburbs is one of those competitive ones, the district that Fariss is running in is not. He’s a Republican who is running as an independent. No matter whether he wins or loses to Republican Eric Zehr, that district would still have a conservative legislator. What about Democrat Kimberly Moran in that district? Could she win in a three-way race? Let’s look at the math: This is a district that voted 79% Republican in the 2021 governor’s race and only 20% Democratic. Even if you split that Republican vote in half, that is still twice as many votes as Democrats have produced there in the last state election. By contrast, that Henrico district was a 51% Republican district in 2021 — almost anything that happens in that contest potentially could change the outcome of the race, and who controls the House.

The General Assembly races aren’t the only thing on the ballot. While this is an off-off year nationally, it’s peak election time in many Virginia localities. In most localities, there are elections for county supervisors, school boards, sheriffs and other so-called “constitutional” officers. In some places, those will be the ones that will drive the turnout. For instance, Henry County has a two-way sheriff’s race, a three-way treasurer’s race and a four-way race for commissioner of the revenue that will animate voters far more than any of the legislative races on the ballot.

In other communities … well, earlier this week, I documented how few school board seats in rural Virginia are being contested. That led me to this inquiry: Are there any places in Virginia where there are no contested races on the ballot?

Yes, there are. I found at least three.

In Districts 3 and 5 in Lee County, every candidate on the ballot is unopposed — for the state Senate, for the House of Delegates, for board of supervisors, for school board, for commonwealth’s attorney, for sheriff, for treasurer, for commissioner of the revenue, even for the Soil and Water Conservation Board.

Same for the Wreck Island District in Appomattox County,

It’s possible there are others in the state, particularly in metro areas in the eastern part of the state where localities are carved up between districts and it’s harder for me to figure out which precincts are in which legislative district and which county supervisor district. If you know of others, I’d love to know about them.

I hate to discourage people from voting, be it early or on the traditional Election Day. The reality, though, is that in those districts, there’s no reason for people to show up at all. We’ll find out in November who wins control of the General Assembly. We’ll also find out who the most dedicated citizens in those completely unopposed districts are — those are the ones who will show up to vote in Wreck Island in Appomattox and District 3 and 5 in Lee County.

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