Some of you will cheerfully go about your business today and then go home and have a relaxing night watching “Dancing With the Stars.”
Your blood pressure will likely be lower than the rest of us, who will spend the day gnawing on every scrap of election information like a feral cat with a used chicken bone it’s rummaged out of the dumpster behind the KFC. There’ll be a lot of hissing and growling over not much meat.
It’s to all of you fellow feral cats that this column is directed. Here’s a consumer advisory on how to sift through some of the information you may hear today and tonight.
1. Beware of reports of “heavy” or “light” turnout.
Every Election Day, I see people chattering about the size of the turnout, describing it as “heavy” or “light” or “steady” or some other phrase. These descriptions mean nothing without any numbers. Sometimes I do see numbers — “53 people have voted at the Rabid Racoon Precinct as of 9 a.m.” Those numbers mean nothing without any context. Otherwise, they are the equivalent of the old George Carlin joke where he played sportscaster Biff Burns: “And now here’s a partial score: Philadelphia 3.”
To truly gauge whether turnout is heavy or light or something in between, we need to compare the numbers with the same cycle four years ago. As I explained in a column last week, this election cycle historically has the lowest turnout of any in Virginia. Even a so-called “heavy” turnout this year would likely be low compared to the turnout in a gubernatorial election or a presidential election.
Here’s how the past four years shape up:
2022 congressional midterms: 49.28% turnout
2021 governor’s race: 54.9%
2020 presidential race: 75.08%
2019 legislative and local races: 42.4%
That 2019 figure may seem low compared to the other years but it’s actually quite high compared to previous legislative cycles:
In the context of other elections, that 2019 turnout was low. In the context of other legislative elections, it was high — primarily because many voters were outraged by then-President Donald Trump and came out in record numbers to vote for Democrats, which enabled Democrats to win control of both chambers of the General Assembly that year.
Don’t rely on any description of turnout unless there’s a numerical comparison to the turnout at that same point of the day four years ago.
2. Don’t equate a heavy turnout with a heavy Democratic turnout.
In 2019, a heavy turnout certainly benefited Democrats, but that was simply a function of who turned out to vote — and who didn’t. In 2021, the turnout in the governor’s race was heavier than in any gubernatorial year since 1993, which was before the “motor voter” law took effect and boosted registration rolls (and depressed turnout percentages). That heavy turnout, though, benefited Republicans more than it did Democrats. The localities with the strongest turnout — Goochland (71%), Powhatan (70%) and Highland (69%) — were all overwhelmingly Republican counties. The locality with the lowest turnout (Petersburg, 38%) is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Once again, it all depends on who decides to vote — especially since even in a heavy turnout legislative year, more than half the state’s registered voters will stay home.
It’s much more important to know where turnout is heavy, and where it’s not. We can safely say that a heavy turnout in Arlington is a big Democratic vote — but that also won’t matter statewide since all the legislative districts there are dark blue anyway. Likewise, a heavy turnout in Tazewell County is assuredly Republican since that’s one of the strongest Republican counties in the state.
What’s more important is knowing the turnout in competitive districts. Let’s take House District 41 as an example. For Democrat Lily Franklin to win, she’ll need a big turnout in Democratic-voting Blacksburg. For Republican Chris Obenshain to win, he’ll need to run up margins in the more rural portions of the district in Montgomery and Roanoke counties. If we can compare the turnout between Blacksburg and Bent Mountain, then we might have some insight.
3. Don’t pay too much attention to exit polls.
By late afternoon, you may see reference to exit polls conducted by various national news organizations. Please remember that if we went by exit polls alone, we’d be talking today about what happened during the Kerry administration — because exit polls in 2004 showed that John Kerry was on track to upset President George W. Bush. That wasn’t ideological bias, just poor polling; a post-mortem found that Kerry voters were more likely to participate than Bush voters. Once we know the actual results, exit polls are useful to study certain aspects of the election because we can account for any sampling errors and adjust accordingly.
Another reason to not get overly excited about the exit polls is that they’ll give you statewide figures — X% of voters said they voted Democratic, Y% said they voted Republican. That’s not how we elect state legislators, though. We elect them on a district-by-district basis. Tell me how Senate District 24 on the Peninsula between Democrat Monty Mason and Republican Danny Diggs is going and I can tell you which party will be happiest at the end of the night. Otherwise, I’m not impressed by polling that’s inflated by Democrats in uncontested or lightly contested districts in Northern Virginia and Republicans running in their equivalent in Southwest Virginia. What exit polls are showing what issues that particular types of voters are interested in — this group most interested in abortion, this group most interested in the economy, and so forth.
4. Rely on authoritative sources for election results.
Now that I’ve told you what not to pay attention to, you’re likely wondering what you should pay attention to. That answer is easy: actual voting returns. While voting results aren’t official until they’re certified, the ultimate authority is the State Board of Elections. That’s where we at Cardinal will be looking tonight for the numbers. The Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit nonpartisan site that tracks Virginia politics, also has a very good site that a) relies on State Board of Elections data but b) displays it in a more user-friendly way. I usually toggle between the two. Sometimes you’ll see news reports that cite different numbers — those outlets have probably gotten the numbers directly from their local registrars, but if there’s a discrepancy between what the State Board of Elections says and what Radio Free Possum Hollow says, it’s often hard to figure out where and what it is. No disrespect to our mythical Radio Free Possum Hollow, but I’ll stick with the State Board of Elections and VPAP, thank you very much. That brings us to this advisory:
5. When dealing with partial returns, we need to know which precincts those numbers are coming from.
I referred earlier how House candidates Franklin and Obenshain draw their strength from different parts of House District 41. The Democratic vote is concentrated in and around Blacksburg, the Republican vote everywhere else. If the first returns show one candidate way ahead, we ought to ask which precincts are in, and which ones aren’t.
Likewise, look at Senate District 4 where state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, faces off against Democrat Trish White-Boyd.
For White-Boyd to win, she needs a big turnout in Roanoke — and more specifically the Democratic parts of Roanoke. My point: If early returns in a competitive race show one candidate leading (and they will), we really need to know which parts of the district are reporting: Are they the Democratic precincts or the Republican precincts? Or are there trends we can discern from certain swing precincts? For that, you need to click down into the depths of the State Board of Elections data — and know the voting histories of those precincts. That’s how I’ll be spending a lot of tonight.
If you want to spare yourself that trouble, don’t worry. Tonight I’ll be posting a running analysis of the returns as they come in, with an emphasis on trying to put the numbers in context as they come in. I’ve seen lots of elections where Candidate A jumps out ahead but it’s clear that Candidate B is probably going to win because Candidate B’s best precincts haven’t been counted yet.
I’ll even share this prediction, of sorts: The early returns will show Suetterlein ahead — because White-Boyd’s base in Roanoke is historically a late-reporting locality.
A final advisory: Go vote. The polls are open until 7 p.m. Don’t forget that in 2017 one House of Delegate race ended in a tie, forcing election officials to draw a name by lot to pick the winner. That drawing also determined which party controlled the House of Delegates. I always wondered how many voters in that district in Newport News stayed at home — and later wished they could have cast the deciding vote.
See ya tonight.
Looking for your precinct, or who’s on the ballot? See our election page.