The Republican victories in the 2021 elections in Virginia underscore the significance of election integrity in ensuring a level political playing field.
The results by no means indicate that Virginia has gone back to being a “purple” state. Rather, they show that when conservative candidates have a powerful message that resonates with key segments of the electorate – and are not hobbled by artificial disadvantages – they can pull off victories even in states that are normally reliably blue.
That sort of competitiveness is a hallmark of any healthy democracy, but it’s not possible when election rules are manipulated by partisan officials, or when private interests co-opt government election offices that voters rely on to be objective and non-partisan.
In Virginia, most commentators readily acknowledge that the Youngkin campaign’s greatest advantage came from the disgust that suburban moderates feel toward far-left progressive ideology, particularly in the context of education policies. The Democrats’ embrace of radical policies and disdain for the role of parents drove a large number of voters into the arms of Republican candidates, who received them with a common-sense message of local control.
If Republicans in Washington are looking for lessons to take away from the Virginia gubernatorial race, the importance of local control over education policy would be a good place to start. Too often, right-leaning politicians forget all about federalism when they arrive in Washington, and become fixated on finding federal solutions to problems that are inherently local. That’s how we ended up with the No Child Left Behind policy, which disastrously morphed into the arguably even more reviled Common Core during the Obama administration.
The Republican candidates in Virginia understood that voters – particularly suburban voters – care deeply about ensuring a high-quality, non-ideological educational experience for their children. Education occurs where a parent, teacher, and child interact, not in windowless offices of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. But having the right message to win over voters only matters as long as the election is fundamentally free and fair.
In 2020, we experienced the most lawless election in American history. This was due in part to emergency COVID orders that leftist officials exploited in order to rewrite election rules, and in part to the pernicious influence of hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding, which activist groups used to turn government election offices into partisan get-out-the-vote centers.
Neither factor was seriously in play in the 2021 elections in Virginia. Perhaps emboldened by their 10-point margin of victory in the state in the 2020 presidential election, Democrats neglected to inject significant amount of private funding into local election offices during the early stages of the election, when it would have the greatest effect. They were also hampered by incumbent Gov. Ralph Northam’s appropriate failure to issue an emergency declaration that would have allowed Democrat strongholds such as Fairfax County to waive ballot security measures such as witness requirements for absentee ballots. In 2020, emergency orders were used as cover for a variety of unlawful actions.
Also significant was the presence of large numbers of trained poll watchers in 2021 – statewide, 93 percent of precincts were covered by poll watchers who knew exactly what to look out for based on the experience of 2020. Last year, in contrast, election observers all over the country were systematically prevented from meaningfully exercising their legal rights to monitor the vote counting process. In most cases, they were corralled far away from where the actual vote counting took place, and in some places they were physically evicted from the premises while vote counting continued without them.
Going forward, Governor-Elect Youngkin and the incoming GOP-majority state legislature cannot afford to be complacent about election integrity issues. There are still lingering issues from 2020 that need to be investigated and addressed before voters can have confidence in the election process.
There is substantial evidence, for instance, that DMV resources in deep-blue Northern Virginia counties were used to turn out votes, even as DMV offices remained closed elsewhere in the state. There’s evidence that other resources may have been used to turn out specifically left-leaning voters, as well – a phenomenon The Amistad Project has observed all over the country, especially in swing states.
With access to state records, Youngkin should be able to uncover the details of this apparent disparate treatment, and lawmakers should be able to use that information to strengthen state election laws to prevent future abuses.
When elections are genuinely free and fair, both parties have a legitimate chance at victory as long as they craft platforms that resonate with voters. The 2021 elections offer a reminder that election integrity is a perennially important issue for everyone who cares about preserving a functioning democracy that is accountable to the people.