On a rainy weekday afternoon, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin bounded onto a makeshift stage at a local firehouse here to rally turnout for legislative elections that could deliver his party full control of Virginia and cement his reputation as a national GOP leader.
He spoke scornfully of the Democrats who now control the state Senate and have blocked parts of his conservative agenda, and he praised individual GOP candidates on the ballot this fall. But Youngkin also zeroed in on how his fellow Republicans should cast their ballots – part of what his aides say is a seven-figure drive to encourage mail-in and in-person early voting in a state that allows for 45 days of balloting.
“Vote early. Vote early. Vote early,” he exhorted the small crowd gathered before his blue-and-red “Secure Your Vote Virginia” tour bus that’s barnstorming the state. “Folks, we don’t know if a child is going to get sick” on Election Day, he said. “We don’t know if something is going to happen at work.”
Following lackluster results in the past two federal elections, some prominent Republicans, including Youngkin, this year are mounting major campaigns to drive GOP voters to embrace practices, such as voting by mail, that former President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly denigrated as rife with fraud.
But they face the formidable task of winning over the GOP voters who remain skeptical of mail-in voting, years after the 2020 election. Those voters also must navigate a raft of new laws that have imposed fresh restrictions on absentee voting in recent years.
The Republican National Committee has been at the forefront of the early-voting campaign, launching a “Bank Your Vote” effort aimed at next year’s consequential White House and congressional contests. The party has rolled out state-specific programs in places like California, Ohio and Nevada – where the Democratic-controlled legislature made permanent a pandemic-era practice of mailing a ballot to every registered voter in the Silver State.
“We no longer have Election Day; we have an election month,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said during the “Bank Your Vote” rollout in Nevada. “If we don’t vote early, we’re giving the Democrats a huge head start.”
The headwinds, however, still include Trump’s own rhetoric.
Despite joining other Republicans in recording a video this year in support of the RNC’s push, Trump – the current front-runner in the GOP presidential primary – continues to attack the credibility of US elections. Over the weekend, he once again made claims of a stolen election, seeming to allege, this time, that Senate Democrats had somehow rigged the 2020 election that he lost.
Nor will the issue recede in the months ahead as Trump publicly fights criminal indictments that center on his attempts to overturn that election.
“One of the big ironies of (Trump’s) attacks on election integrity is that he’s really hurting himself,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016. “Why would you waste time voting if you didn’t think it counted?”
Further complicating the picture: Nearly two dozen states, including key 2024 Senate battlegrounds such as Ohio and Arizona, have enacted new restrictions on mail-in voting since the 2020 election, according to Voting Rights Lab, a group working to expand ballot access that’s tracking legislation at the state level.
Ohio, for instance, has shortened the window to apply for an absentee ballot and has tightened voter ID requirements.
In Arizona, Republican lawmakers changed the state’s mail-in voting rules following Trump’s razor-thin loss in the state to President Joe Biden. The law now removes people from Arizona’s widely used early voting list if they don’t cast a ballot at least once every two years.
And Arizona’s vote-by-mail system has faced attacks from both the state GOP and Kari Lake, the 2022 Republican gubernatorial nominee, who has refused to concede her more-than-17,000-vote loss to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs.
Lake, a staunch defender of Trump’s stolen election claims, now is expected to run for the US Senate next year, likely keeping questions about voting procedures at the forefront of a marquee Senate race.
Natalie Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has conducted research among Americans who believe Trump won in 2020, said it could prove difficult for Republican leaders to persuade them to now vote by mail after vilifying it for so long.
“People create narratives about what happened and why,” she said. “For 2020, the narrative is that the election was stolen, and the why – because of fraud associated with mail-in ballots. When people get those stories in their minds, it’s hard to displace that really compelling causal account.”
A Pew Research Center analysis of surveys conducted after last year’s midterm elections underscores the wide partisan gaps that linger. Most GOP voters surveyed – 58% – said they were not confident that mail-in or absentee votes cast in 2022 were counted correctly.
By contrast, 94% of Democrats expressed confidence that those ballots were counted as voters intended.
Prior to Youngkin’s election in 2021, Virginia, then under Democratic control, dramatically expanded access to the ballot. And the state enacted in 2020 no-excuse early voting, allowing residents to vote before Election Day with no excuse or reason needed. Virginia now has one of the longest early-vote windows in the country, and recent Republican legislative efforts to shorten the early-vote period have failed.
In June, a little more than 26% of participants in the Republican primary voted early, according to Virginia Department of Elections data analyzed by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
But a bigger share – nearly 41% – of those voting in the Democratic primary opted to cast early ballots. Virginia does not require voters to register by party, so activity in partisan primaries offers a snapshot of Republican and Democratic voting practices.
All candidates want to bank votes from their most reliable supporters well before Election Day so they can direct their attention and money to turning out infrequent voters in the election homestretch, said Conant, the Republican strategist.
“It really allows campaigns to focus their resources in the final 72 hours,” he said.
Youngkin is not on the ballot this year, but the former private equity CEO – widely viewed as a future presidential contender – faces high political stakes.
He’s looking to maintain his party’s hold on the state House of Delegates and turn the state Senate red, empowering him to push through more of his conservative agenda during the final two years of his tenure. (Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms.)
Youngkin’s priorities include repealing a law that ties Virginia’s vehicle emission standards to those enacted by California, said Dave Rexrode, a political adviser to the governor and chairman of his Spirit of Virginia PAC.
California last year established a requirement for all vehicles sold in the state to be electric, hydrogen-fueled or at least plug-in hybrid by 2035, sparking outcry among Virginia Republicans, who say it will end the sale of gas vehicles in the Old Dominion State.
“They want to try to make Virginia California,” Youngkin declared at his turnout event. “Well, not while I’m governor.”
The outcome of next month’s election is likely to turn on just 17 competitive races out of the 140 Virginia General Assembly seats on the ballot, Rexrode said. “If a couple hundred extra folks participate in the process, that could make the difference.”
He acknowledged the difficulty Republicans face in winning over the holdouts, saying that’s why the Youngkin team has embraced “an all-of-the-above approach” to make its case – reminding supporters they can vote early in person or by mail or on Election Day.
Rexrode said his party can’t afford to forgo any options.
“The analogy I use is a basketball game,” he said. “We have to play from the tip-off to the buzzer at the end of the game. For too long, a good portion of our party, sat on the bench and watched the game take place and saw the Democrats running up and down the court, making easy layups.”
In their messaging, Youngkin and other Republicans emphasize election security. In announcing the RNC program in Ohio, party officials boasted of having had 680 poll watcher shifts during last year’s midterm elections in the state – a reference to the partisan volunteers who monitor voting to guard against malfeasance.
In Virginia, an oversized QR code emblazoned on the side Youngkin’s bus directs voters to an absentee-ballot request form that he said would take only minutes to complete.
“You’ll get an email that says, ‘Your ballot is on its way,’” Youngkin said as he walked his supporters through the process. “Then, when you mail it back, you’ll get an email that says, ‘Your vote has been received and counted.’ “
He met a receptive audience in Stafford.
Patricia Levinsohn, who voted twice for Trump and is an ardent Youngkin backer, had already cast her ballot in person a day before the governor’s rally but still showed up to cheer him on, wearing an “I voted” sticker.
“I just wanted to get it done,” the 86-year-old said of voting early. “I’m a staunch Republican, and I really wanted to make sure that nothing would happen that I wasn’t able to vote.”
It’s a habit she said she formed during the years she and her husband traveled out of state in their recreational vehicle and needed to vote absentee.
Robert Louzek, another Republican at the Youngkin event, said he had voted absentee for 30 years when he was in the US Navy. He said he had “no choice” during those years but to trust that his vote would be counted.
These days, under the Virginia system, “I can go online and track my ballot,” the 70-year-old said.
But another voter, interviewed outside a Lowe’s home improvement store about five miles away from the Virginia governor’s rally, said he was a sticking to his Election Day habit.
“I don’t believe in early voting,” said the voter, who declined to give his full name. “I don’t think the system is adequately set up to safeguard against fraud and manipulation.”
The 69-year-old said he moved to Virginia from Pittsburgh about three years ago to be closer to family. Although he was registered as a Democrat in Pennsylvania, he said he often votes for Republicans – including for Youngkin in 2021.
“I vote on Election Day,” he added. “I always have and always will.”