A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.
A voting sign in Fincastle. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

More than 225,000 votes have already been cast in this year’s General Assembly elections, which naturally raises this question: Who’s ahead?

Obviously, we don’t know, because those votes won’t get counted until Nov. 7, which only frustrates political analysts like me even more. If we turn on any sports event in progress, we’ll get a partial score. Elections don’t work that way, though. Still, some of us try to puzzle out some trends anyway.

I’ve pointed out that there’s a lot of early voting in solidly Republican districts — even districts where Republican candidates are unopposed — which tells me that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s early voting pitch is taking hold among Republicans. I’ve also seen speculation that we’re seeing a lot of heavy early voting from Democrats on the theory that most of the mail vote (as opposed to the in-person vote) tends to be Democratic. 

So which is it? Ultimately, we still don’t know, but in the course of looking at the numbers I came upon something interesting.

In the 2020 general election, 63.7% of the early vote was cast in person, 36.3% by mail.

In the 2021 general election, 72.1% of the early vote was cast in person, 27.9% by mail.

In the 2022 general election, 69.6% of the early vote was cast in person, 30.4% by mail.

So far in the 2023 general election, 55.5% of the early vote has been cast in person, 44.5% by mail.

Does this suggest we’re seeing a shift toward more mail voting? If so, does that suggest that the early voting this year is showing a Democratic trend?

To answer that question, I turned to Chris Piper, the executive director of the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan site that tracks money (and other data) in Virginia politics. VPAP publishes daily updates on how the early voting is going and has data from previous elections.

His answer was no, we’re not seeing a shift toward more mail voting. He ran the figures for the first 18 days of early voting for each of the past four elections. In each one, the in-person early vote was lower in the first 18 days than it wound up being at the end.

2020: 53.6% in person, 46.4% mail.

2021: 60.1% in person, 39.9% mail.

2022: 52.8% in person, 47.2% mail.

2023: 55.3% in person, 44.7% mail.

(Sharp-eyed readers will notice that the in-person vote has ticked up slightly between when Piper ran his data and when I wrote this column.)

There’s never a guarantee that the future will turn out like the past but the data we have suggests that the current in-person/mail split isn’t unusual and that the in-person percentage will eventually rise — so if it’s true that the mail vote tends to be Democratic, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that there’s an unusual Democratic surge of early votes taking place. Maybe there is, but we can’t say that based on the in-person/mail split. 

What can we say?

Let’s dig deeper.

Let’s look at Arlington County. This is one of the most solidly Democratic localities in the state. In 2021, Arlington voted 76.7% for the Democratic candidate for governor. The Democratic House candidates there have no Republican opposition, although the Democratic Senate candidates do. My point: This is a place where we’d expect the early vote to be weighted toward Democrats, not just because Democrats prefer that way of voting, but because this is a locality that we can go ahead and color in solid blue no matter how things turn out across the rest of the state. So far, most of the early votes there have come by mail — 62.7% of the total. 

That certainly supports the thesis that the mail vote is likely heavily Democratic.

Or does it?

Let’s look now at one of the most Republican counties in the state, Lee County. In 2021, it voted 87.6% Republican, making it the most Republican county in the state. Not surprisingly, this year, both its Republican state senator (Todd Pillion) and its Republican delegate (Terry Kilgore) are unopposed. Also not surprisingly, the early voting there is light — there’s simply not much to vote for except some local offices (and most of those are unopposed as well). However, even in this most Republican of counties, most of the early votes so far have come by mail — 55.8%.

Other strongly Republican localities in Southwest Virginia where Republican legislators are running unopposed are also seeing an early trend in mail voting: Bristol, Smyth County and Wise County all have more mail votes than in-person votes so far. The trend in Bristol is particularly strong: 84.2% of the votes cast there so far have come by mail. We also see mail voting predominating in Franklin County and Pittsylvania County, also Republican-voting localities.

Those places are exceptions, to be sure. In most rural localities — which usually means Republican localities — most of the early vote is coming in person and it’s expected to stay that way, if the past is any guide. Still, we see a lot of Republican localities where the in-person vote and the mail vote are running neck-and-neck. Among them: Alleghany County, Carroll County and Halifax County.

This suggests to me that voting by mail isn’t necessarily a Democratic phenomenon. Maybe it’s heavily Democratic in Democratic localities, but not in localities predisposed to vote Republican. 

I certainly wouldn’t look at the strong mail-in vote so far in some of those rural counties and jump to the conclusion that Democrats are about to win there. It’s more tempting to look at the numbers in, say, Senate District 31 in Northern Virginia and try to make some guesses. This district, which takes in parts of Loudoun and Fauquier counties, is one of the most closely contested in the state; it’s certainly the most expensive. The outcome of this race — between Democrat Russet Perry and Republican Juan Pablo Segura — could determine who controls the state Senate. About 90% of the voters here live in Loudoun County, and in Loudoun, which has gone Democratic in recent elections, most of the early votes so far have come by mail. That would seem to be good news for Perry — unless there’s been some fundamental shift in who votes early and who votes early by mail. 

Those are two pretty big questions, ones that we don’t know the answer to yet. That’s why this column constitutes one long advisory: Let’s not try to draw too many conclusions before the votes have actually been counted.

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