Our Democracy Wins When We Have Accessible Voting and High Turnout

People sand in line to vote behind signs for Glen Youngkin, Terry McAuliffe and others.
People wait in line on the last day of early voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S., October 30, 2021. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

There has been lots of analysis of last week’s election results in the Virginia governor’s race, but one takeaway from the Virginia results is hugely important and deserves more attention — with potentially groundbreaking ramifications for democracy.

Virginia Republicans won in an environment with historically large voter turnout and new pro-voter Virginia voting laws. This is a strong example of what Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has been saying for years — the freedom to vote and fair elections are about responsive government for the American people, and they benefit Americans and both major political parties.

The idea that making it easier to vote helps Democrats and hurts Republicans is again proven wrong by these results. Others have observed this in the past few days, too, but in the work to advance democracy in America, we should continue to share this story.

For the past two years (and longer, but especially in the past two years), many in the national Republican Party have doubled down on creating barriers to voting and enflaming distrust in our election systems, which I believe has been to their own disadvantage. 

During the pandemic, Republicans in many states (though not all) fought measures that would have helped voters vote safely and accessibly during a global pandemic.

The incumbent Republican president led a monthslong campaign ahead of the 2020 election to baselessly delegitimize state and local election officials and election results, because he presumably thought that voters wouldn’t choose him if they turned out to vote in high numbers.

(He said as much in a Fox & Friends interview in March 2020 about congressional proposals to expand access to voting during the pandemic: “They had levels of voting, if you ever agreed to it, you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again.")

Then, in the wake of the 2020 election, there has been a surge in new state laws creating barriers to the freedom to vote, with Republican state legislators echoing discredited allegations of fraud and apparently embracing the theory that high turnout and fair elections would disadvantage their party.

Last week, Virginia disproved the theory that high turnout and accessible voting inherently benefits one party over another. For the health of American democracy, that’s a good thing.

In Virginia, the Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and down-ballot Republican candidates rode a wave of high turnout — the highest voter turnout for a Virginia gubernatorial election since 1997.

This was in part made possible by good voting laws recently passed by Virginia’s legislature — laws that CLC supports, because they benefit all Virginia voters.

These reforms include allowing “no excuse” vote-by-mail, implementing automatic voter registration, making Election Day a state holiday and making opportunities for voter validation clear, inclusive and accessible (with a long list of acceptable IDs and a backup sworn affidavit process available). 

Virginia’s improvements can be measured numerically: In 2016, Virginia ranked 49th out of 50 states in accessibility for voters to exercise their fundamental right to cast a ballot, according to the “Cost of Voting” Index published by Northern Illinois University.

In 2020, Virginia’s ranking improved to 12th. CLC’s own 2021 state scorecard for vote-by-mail and early voting gave Virginia a 9/10, putting it in the “least restrictive” category.

CLC supported Virginia’s changes because they were good for voters, regardless of which party would benefit. Republican voters support good voting policies, too, as polling on the Freedom to Vote Act has shown. It’s clear from Virginia’s election on Tuesday that these policies do help voters, and that’s a win.

Hopefully, Republican Party leadership in Washington, D.C. and the states sees this and changes its opinions about voter turnout and erecting barriers to voting, and it shifts to a bigger embrace of responsive, accountable government and freedom for voters. 

In America, we value our freedom, and that includes the freedom to cast our ballots and elect leaders who are responsive to us, so we can have a say in decisions that impact our lives.

CLC will continue to fight for the freedom to vote and build and support cross-partisan coalitions to enact good policies for American voters. Our country needs them.

Trevor is CLC's founder and one of the country's top election lawyers.
Passing Federal Legislation Promoting Voting Access in the States