Virginia’s gubernatorial contest between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe clearly has supporters of the latter worried. Recent polls show a far tighter race than they expected. Consequently, it was all but inevitable that McAuliffe’s allies would attempt to meddle with election laws using public health as a pretext. Sure enough, the Democrat-dominated Fairfax Board of Supervisors has asked Gov. Ralph Northam to waive the witness signature requirement that Virginia law stipulates for all absentee ballots. Board Chairman Jeffrey McKay insists that the waiver is necessary due to the threat of COVID-19, yet cases are declining.
The New York Times reported Sunday that Virginia’s cases and hospitalizations have declined 17 and 14 percent respectively during the past two weeks. Moreover, Virginia’s state of emergency expired June 30 as did the numerous executive orders Gov. Northam issued pursuant to the pandemic. The sole Republican member of the Fairfax board, Pat Herrity, voted against asking Northam to issue such an extraordinary waiver, pointing out that voting has already been underway for three weeks: “To do this in the middle of an election process in the name of COVID is nonsensical.” He also emphasized election integrity: “Witness signatures are important as they provide another line of defense against voter fraud.”
Until last year, all absentee ballots cast in a Virginia election had to be signed by a witness confirming that the voter was indeed eligible to vote and legally registered. This long standing statute was temporarily suspended during the 2020 general election pursuant to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. The moratorium ended after the Commonwealth’s state of emergency was lifted, but Fairfax County has refused to give up its emergency powers despite a 21 percent decline in cases. Nonetheless, a recent statement by Virginia’s Department of Elections reiterates that “witness signatures are required on all absentee ballots.” The Fairfax County Democrats are not happy, as McKay makes abundantly clear:
Last year we expanded voting opportunities in the midst of the pandemic, as I stated before this county is still in a state of emergency, and we should be doing everything we can to make it as easy as possible for our residents to vote, regardless what of what other elected officials falsely say about elections in Virginia.… No one should have their ballot rejected because they’re unwilling to risk their health and safety to vote. We want to be a county that promotes voter participation and doesn’t punish people.
What’s actually worrying McKay and other Virginia Democrats is the necessity of returning to normal election rules during a Governor’s race in which their candidate appears to be floundering. Terry McAuliffe is a Clinton consigliere with decades of political experience and was a relatively popular governor of Virginia prior to being succeeded by fellow Democrat Ralph Northam. All of which caused McAuliffe and his staff to underestimate his opponent, businessman Glenn Youngkin, mistaking political inexperience for incompetence. McAuliffe then compounded that mistake by committing the colossal blunder of publicly declaring, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Youngkin may be a newcomer, but he immediately recognized McAuliffe’s egregious gaffe as a slow pitch coming right across the middle of the plate. He immediately put together a campaign ad and has consistently reminded Virginia’s voters that McAuliffe is in thrall to the teachers’ unions and the Virginia school boards they have packed with union-friendly members. Moreover, he has turned the “inexperience” argument into an asset rather than a liability. Sensing that Virginia’s voters have grown weary of the clumsy controversies of Ralph Northam (e.g. his blackface scandal and red flag laws) and have even less appetite for another four years under a Clinton bag man, he embraces his status as an outsider:
We need a new type of governor to bring a new day in Virginia.… The political insiders who have been running Virginia have failed us. Our next governor must address the issues head-on and not hide behind the failed policies of the past.… What Virginia needs now isn’t another politician — or even worse, the same politician. Government bureaucracy won’t lead the rebound; the heart and resilience of Virginians will. Getting there will take a new kind of governor, an outsider who is trusted.
This message seems to be working. The most recent statewide polls show Youngkin breathing down McAuliffe’s neck and the Cook Political Report has moved the Virginia contest from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up.” Even more telling is the desperate tone of McAuliffe’s fundraising requests. He and his surrogates are, according to Politico, pleading for online cash: “McAuliffe emailed his supporters last week with a simple question: ‘Are we blowing this?’” This is why the Democrats who run Fairfax County want Ralph Northam to waive the witness signature requirement for absentee ballots. They are obviously worried their man can’t win without a little of that old 2020 magic, and it’s a good bet that they are right.