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Polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Just over 55% of the commonwealth’s 5.9 million electorate turned in their ballots on or before Election Day, according to the latest data from the Virginia Department of Elections. This number may increase as final votes in the race are tallied in the coming days.
Voter turnout this year is higher than it was in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, which saw 47.6% of the state’s nearly 5.5 million electorate cast their ballots. This year’s turnout is also higher than any other gubernatorial election in the state since at least 1997.
Experts say that the high turnout is a product of expanded early voting access in the commonwealth and Youngkin’s and McAuliffe’s massive campaign war chests.
Early voting in Virginia hit a record high. At least 1,137,656 voters submitted early ballots by the pre-Election Day voting deadline on Oct. 30, according to data from Democratic data firm TargetSmart. This is nearly six times the early voting turnout in 2017.
So far, early voting in person or by mail makes up 35% of the 3.3 million voter turnout in this year’s gubernatorial election, according to NBC.
Virginia permanently enshrined early voting options after temporarily implementing them in 2020 when Covid-19 cases spiked across the U.S.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who Youngkin will succeed, signed legislation into law in April 2020 that allowed registered Virginia voters to request absentee ballots without reason and vote 45 days prior to an Election Day. These early voting options went into effect during the November presidential election later that year.
Prior to the 2020 election, early voting in Virginia lasted for seven days and required an excuse.
Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech, said the expanded early voting access likely contributed to the overall high turnout in the election.
“One reason may be that voting rules have changed – no-fault absentee voting now is available and COVID-induced in person early voting remained in place,” Hult said, noting that such voting options makes it easier for people to cast their ballots.
High campaign spending from both Youngkin and McAuliffe likely boosted voter turnout as well, according to Hult.
Virginia is one of ten states with no contribution limits on individual donors to political candidates, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. It is also one of five states with no limits on contributions by corporations, and one of 18 states with no restrictions on state party committees’ ability to contribute money.
Both candidates have taken advantage of Virginia’s loose campaign finance rules.
Youngkin, the former CEO of global investment firm Carlyle Group, has a campaign war chest of $49 million, according to the latest data from the Virginia Public Access Project. He entered the Republican field with a hefty personal fortune estimated at $440 million, and poured $20 million of his own wealth into his campaign.
The soon-to-be-governor has also received over $2 million from the Republican Party of Virginia, and 10.5 million from the Republican Governors Association, Open Secrets reported last week.
McAuliffe’s campaign, meanwhile, raised about $55 million.
The Democratic Party of Virginia contributed about $4.4 million to his campaign, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. And the Democratic Governors Association has donated a cumulative $6.7 million to McAuliffe’s campaign as of last week, according to Open Secrets.
Funds from both of their campaign war chests largely paid for an avalanche of TV and digital ads aimed at mobilizing their partisan bases.
Youngkin’s campaign has spent the bulk of its political contributions on advertising, with over $21 million on TV and radio spots and $9.7 million on digital ads, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Similarly, McAuliffe’s campaign spent $31 million on TV and radio spots and $6.2 million on digital ads.
“Record-breaking amounts of money were spent by the candidates,” Hult said, noting that massive campaign funds “tend to increase turnout.”
While votes are still being tallied, Youngkin is poised to succeed outgoing Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat who was unable to seek reelection this year because Virginia law prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms. Youngkin will officially take office as the commonwealth’s 74th governor on Jan. 15, 2022.
A former businessman who has never held elected office, Youngkin has sold himself as a political outsider while rallying the commonwealth’s voters around hot-button issues such as schools and keeping his distance from former President Donald Trump.
He will take the helm of a state that President Joe Biden won by 10 points just a year ago, ending a string of election victories for Democrats in Virginia and signaling a rough road ahead for the party in next year’s midterms.
When asked about McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia, President Joe Biden reiterated calls for his own party to move hastily to reach a deal on his legislative agenda.
“People want us to get things done,” the president said when asked about Democrats’ upset in the commonwealth. “They want us to get things done. And that’s why I’m continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better bill.”