How the Virginia Election Killed Democrats' Turnout Theory

Among the many takeaways from the Virginia gubernatorial race this week is a notable contradiction of Democratic orthodoxy, one of the party's guiding principles in recent years: That higher turnout benefits Democrats.

Republicans typically agree, and in the last decade they have pushed voter ID laws, sought to limit absentee voting, and put up other barriers to suppress turnout — all with the stated purpose of combating fraud, though a growing number have admitted they believe voting restrictions help them win.

But Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin won on Tuesday amid the highest turnout in a gubernatorial race since 1997. And he did so in a blue state, where prior to this week Democrats had won four of the last five gubernatorial elections and all statewide elections since 2012.

Youngkin's victory was no fluke either — it came alongside Republican gains in the House of Delegates, where the party picked up at least five seats and erased the Democratic majority.

Politicos have been quick to place blame for Democrats' losses on President Joe Biden, who won Virginia last year by 10 points, and infighting among Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate. But whatever the reason, what is clear is that high turnout didn't prove to be a boon for Democrats even in a state that has recently favored the left.

In 2019, Democrats won control of both chambers of the Virginia State House. With Democratic Governor Ralph Northam already seated, that gave Democrats what would prove to be a short-lived trifecta — full control of the state government — which they would use to enact a number of voting reforms.

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Glenn Youngkin speaks during an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles. Youngkin won the state's top seat amid the highest turnout in a gubernatorial race since 1997. Democrats had won four of the last five governor battles and all statewide elections since 2012. Getty/Chip Somodevilla

Experts have credited high voter turnout this year in part to those reforms, which included repealing the state's voter ID law, enacting automatic voter registration for anyone receiving a driver's license, allowing 45 days of no-excuse absentee voting, eliminating the need for a witness signature on absentee ballots and making Election Day a holiday. Virginia also expanded the early voting period to six weeks, making it one of the longest in the nation, and opened up early voting on Sundays.

All of the measures have come under fire by Republicans around the country, who in the wake of the contentious presidential election in 2020 have ramped up efforts to restrict voter access. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of October at least 19 states had enacted a total of 33 laws making it harder for Americans to vote.

Many though not all of the states restricting voter access are controlled by Republicans. But among the most noteworthy and restrictive changes are those enacted in Texas, the country's second-largest state by population and representation in Congress, and a Republican stronghold that many fear could be slipping away amid changing demographics in its urban centers.

In 2018, when Democrat Beto O'Rourke came within 2.6 points of incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz, voter turnout was up 18 points compared to the previous midterm, according to the United States Election Project, though it still lagged behind the national average. Cruz's narrow win added fuel to the fire for further restricting voter access in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office since 1994. Republicans have enjoyed a state government trifecta — control of the governor's office and both chambers of the legislature — since 2003.

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Republic Glenn Youngkin defeated Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia's gubernatorial race. Ironically, Youngkin was helped by expanded voter rights, the same ones opposed in red states across the country. Anna Moneymaker/Getty

With their majority, Texas Republicans passed an omnibus bill this year making Texas one of the most difficult states in the U.S. to vote. The Justice Department announced this week that they would be suing Texas over the new measures, which they say will disenfranchise eligible voters. For some of the bill's supporters, that's exactly the point.

In the 2010 midterms, turnout was down and Republicans won control of the U.S. House. In the 2014 midterms, turnout was also low and Republicans kept the House and won control of the U.S. Senate, as well. In 2018, amid the highest midterm turnout in a century, Democrats flipped 41 seats in the House, their largest gain since 1974. It's this kind of anecdotal evidence that has convinced the parties that high turnout benefits Democrats and low turnout benefits Republicans, informing their approach to voter access in the last decade.

But Virginia tells a different story. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe lost this week with 200,000 more votes than Northam won with in 2017. Higher turnout benefited McAuliffe, but it benefited his Republican challenger more.

Democrats are already viewing the loss as a warning for 2022. On Thursday, Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a liberal super PAC, issued a memo warning that "in most competitive races, turnout isn't enough." In the memo, he also urged Democrats to avoid a "lengthy and public fight over the Build Back Better bill," a message resounding through Washington as Democrats lay blame for Tuesday's losses on their inability to pass Biden's social spending plan and the bipartisan infrastructure package.

What lessons Republicans take from the victory in Virginia remain to be seen, but it's unlikely that they will suddenly reverse their efforts after a year of pushing voter restrictions across the country, even if they recognize that expanded voting access can improve their fortunes. After all, Youngkin's campaign encouraged Virginians to vote early.