Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Governor elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, early Wednesday, November 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Thanks to Governor Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats in the state legislature, Virginia no longer has a voter ID law. No-excuse early voting is available for 45 days. Voters can, with a single application, permanently receive mail ballots for every election. Election Day is a state holiday. When you get your driver’s license, you are automatically registered to vote. And because of the combined efforts of Northam and his Democratic predecessor Terry McAuliffe, over the past five years about 284,000 ex-felons got their voting rights restored.

Under this regime, Virginia Republicans just won all of the Commonwealth-wide races—governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—while also seizing control of the House of Delegates, riding the highest turnout for any Virginia gubernatorial election in the past 24 years.

Republicans in Washington should take note. They should embrace, not fear, expanded voting rights access. They should stop filibustering voting rights bills and start negotiating with Democrats to pass one.

Virginia is just the latest refutation of the Republican assumption that expanding voting rights will lead to a Democratic hellscape. As I detailed here in February, Democrats are also deluded if they think making voting easier is a guaranteed path to victory. Strict voter ID laws have backfired on Republicans by galvanizing Democrats. Republicans can and have won in vote-by-mail states. Neither the pool of low-propensity voters nor the pool of disenfranchised ex-felons is overflowing with Democrats; they’re brimming with white men who famously lean Republican. As Virginia showed, with ease of access Republicans can take advantage of shifting political winds.

Right now, those political winds are shifting right. In Virginia and New Jersey—another state that recently expanded voting access—both Republican gubernatorial candidates performed seven percentage points better than Donald Trump did in their states last year. And New Jersey’s Democratic state senate president, Stephen Sweeney, lost reelection, despite getting more votes than he did in any of his past six state senate elections, because a poorly funded Republican truck driver was buoyed by a spike in turnout.

Since 2022 is almost surely going to be a GOP year, Republicans need not worry about handing Democrats a “win” by passing a voting rights bill. They should be partying at the prospect of liberalizing voting in time for a red wave. Making it easier to vote should enable more Republican pickups.

Of course, there is the small matter of determining what exactly should go into any congressional voting rights compromise, as Republicans—ostensibly—remain reluctant to regulate the states. But Republicans have accepted federal laws before, such as the broadly backed 2002 Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the bitterly contested 2000 Florida recount, which included accessibility requirements that encouraged the adoption of mail and early voting. As the West Virginia secretary of state at the time, Joe Manchin implemented the law and expanded introduced early voting in the state, which has only benefited Republicans in the years since.

I have suggested that both parties could accept a narrow bill that included a not-so-strict voter ID mandate, ex-felon enfranchisement, and stiff prison sentences for election manipulation. Tightening up the rules around Electoral College vote ratification is also critical to safeguard democracy.

But the Republicans’ victory in Virginia should make them crave a bigger bill, one that expands mail and early voting.

Glenn Youngkin understands that early voting is not a liberal plot. While Trump ranted that early voting was practically tantamount to election fraud, Youngkin knows better. The New York Times reported that Youngkin’s campaign held rallies near early-voting sites, texted supporters to ask if they knew the location of those sites, and knocked on doors to promote applying for mail ballots.

Youngkin’s legwork paid off. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the Republican share of the early vote in Manassas City and Fairfax City was, respectively, 11 and 10 percentage points higher than for the 2020 presidential election.

To serve their party’s self-interest, state government Republicans across the country should also stop restricting voter access. It may be fun to “own the libs,” with legislation infused with the spirit of Jim Crow, but the GOP risks suppressing their own vote by doing so. Sure, that might be hard for many Republican officials who have internalized the Trump narrative that they need voter suppression to survive. Youngkin proved that a Republican can break free from that narrative, even if he still had to nod to Trump die-hards by forming an “election integrity task force.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could be a real leader and help steer his Republicans away from counterproductive suppression tactics. He helped write the 2002 Help America Vote Act. In his early career, he was even known as a supporter of civil rights.

In his later career, McConnell’s only goal in life has been to accumulate Republican power. Well, expanded voting access in Virginia did just that, and can elsewhere. Here’s a chance for McConnell to do the right thing while also doing the Machiavellian thing.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.