In a race for a Virginia state senate seat this winter, mail-in voting helped Democrat Aaron Rouse (right) defeat his Republican opponent Kevin Adams (left). (Images via

On the evening of January 10, 2023, Kevin Adams had good reason to believe he was about to become a Virginia state senator. The retired Navy lieutenant commander was the GOP nominee in a heavily watched special election, running to fill another Republican’s seat in the state’s Seventh Senate District near the home of the Navy’s Atlantic fleet. 

As the returns began to come in, Adams was leading his Democratic opponent, Aaron Rouse, the Virginia Beach city councilman and former NFL player. At the polls that day, some 3,000 more voters had shown up for Adams than for Rouse. The Republican also led among “early in-person voters”—those who had cast ballots at polling stations in the weeks before Election Day.  

But when a third category, mail-in voters, was counted, Adams’s lead vanished. Only 1,601 of his supporters had applied for and returned a mail-in ballot, while 4,283 had done the same for Rouse, giving the Democrat a close but comfortable 696-vote win.  

That victory had major consequences in Virginia: It bolstered Democrats’ slim majority in the state senate, strengthening the party’s legislative check against the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and effectively derailing GOP Governor Glenn Youngkin’s proposed 15-week abortion ban. But Rouse’s election is also a national case study demonstrating the pivotal role vote by mail can play in closely fought elections.  

Academics and political professionals have long debated the effects of mail-in voting, and recent studies have come to two conclusions. First, sending voters a ballot by mail—which they can fill out at home and mail back or deliver in person to a drop box or polling location—boosts overall turnout. Second, on balance, mail-in voting—sometimes called voting at home—doesn’t advantage one party over another.  

The latter conclusion seemed true even in 2020, when Donald Trump specifically dissuaded his base from voting by mail, spreading false conspiracy theories that absentee voting causes fraud and unfairly benefits Democrats. Even though Trump lost and a far higher portion of Democrats than Republicans voted by mail that year (58 percent versus 32 percent according to a Pew survey), a comprehensive study failed to show a partisan advantage for Democrats in the nation as a whole. 

The study also found, however, a small advantage for Democrats in states that allowed voters to obtain mail ballots without an excuse (like, say, a note from a doctor). As it happens, nearly all of the battleground states in 2020, where the presidential campaigns focused their energy and resources, were also “no excuse” states. As a result, the finding suggests—although it doesn’t definitely prove—that the Democrats’ greater focus on vote by mail in those states may have made a difference.  

The results from the 2022 midterms point in the same direction. Democratic candidates everywhere endorsed mail-in voting and performed better than expected, while Republicans shied away—largely for fear of antagonizing Trump and his hardcore supporters—and did worse. But because so much of what campaigns and third-party groups do on the ground to mobilize voters is not publicly disclosed, it’s impossible to say whether or to what extent Democrats devoted more resources than Republicans to vote by mail in the 2022 midterms or other elections. For the same reason, it’s hard to say if mail-in ballots made more of a difference than, say, early in-person voting. As a result, researchers have yet to verify the impacts of vote by mail on a campaign-specific level. 

The Virginia special election, however, provides some clarity. By all indications, the Democratic candidate devoted considerably more resources to vote-by-mail outreach than the Adams campaign.  

Last winter, Rouse’s campaign pursued a two-pronged vote-by-mail outreach strategy to boost Democratic turnout. First, it hired Civitech, a progressive political technology startup, to mail out more than 10,000 absentee ballot applications to potential Democratic voters and follow up with “ballot-chasing” text reminders. 

Second, it made use of Virginia’s “single sign-on” absentee voting system. As the name implies, the system allows voters to sign up just once to receive a ballot by mail for a specific election and then automatically receive one in each subsequent election—a feature especially critical in non-presidential years, when voters are less likely to remember upcoming races. According to The Washington Post, party leaders believe that up to 75 percent of voters on Virginia’s single sign-up list are Democrats, making it a tool best utilized by Democratic candidates vying to make up margins in closely competitive races. 

To capitalize on that advantage, last winter, the Rouse campaign hired SB Digital. This Virginia-based political communications firm strategically targeted Democratic voters on the state’s single sign-on list, which they now believe played a critical role in increasing Democratic turnout for Rouse. According to a report released by the company, of the mail-in ballots cast in January’s special election, 6,045 came specifically from voters on the state’s single sign-on list, while just 232 were requested explicitly for that cycle. 

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (left) and Kevin Adams (right). (Via Adams for Senate)

The Adams campaign also leveraged the state’s expansive early voting period. However, it appears that their strategy focused mainly on promoting early voting in-person rather than vote by mail. With help from Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC—which donated more than $30,000 to Adams’ organization last winter and, according to a campaign official, remained closely involved in its day-to-day operations—the campaign hosted an “Early Vote” rally with the governor where GOP voters were urged to cast their ballots early at polling places before election day. The campaign’s Facebook and Twitter posts, which the Washington Monthly examined, also promoted early in-person voting. None even mentioned voting by mail.  

This approach did yield results, with Adams slightly outperforming Rouse in terms of votes cast early in person. But it wasn’t enough to compete with the Rouse campaign’s intense investment in vote by mail. In fact, the number of mail-in ballots cast during last winter’s election significantly exceeded the number of early votes cast in person, demonstrating a complete reversal from the 2022 midterms. 

That lesson has not been lost on Adams, who is challenging Rouse again this November. “Our campaign is laser-focused on getting Republicans to secure their vote by making full use of absentee voting,” Adams told me by email. “I know firsthand from the January special election that we cannot go into election day down thousands of votes, and we are prosecuting an aggressive absentee turnout program.” Coordinating once again with Younkin’s PAC, the Adams campaign has been helping voters apply for mail-in ballots as well as soliciting pledges from Republicans who plan to vote early in person. 

Although Youngkin himself is not on the ballot in November, his PAC is engaged in an unprecedented fundraising campaign and a self-proclaimed “seven-figure” and “data-driven” plan to revamp Republicans’ absentee voting strategy as both parties vie to reclaim control of the state legislature. Last month, the governor officially launched the new platform “Secure Your Vote Virginia,” which encourages GOP voters to vote by mail or early in person. As House Minority Leader Don L. Scott, Jr. told The Washington Post last month, party leaders believe this new absentee voting push is partly a reaction to Rouse’s January victory. “Secure Your Vote Virginia is an unprecedented effort — in scope and size — to encourage Virginians to vote absentee by mail and early in person,” a Spirit of Virginia official told me by email.  

This strategy poses a few practical limitations, however. Though all 10 of Youngkin’s endorsed GOP candidates, whom the Washington Post characterized as “moderate,” won their primary races this June, getting the party’s MAGA voter base to embrace mail-in voting may still be a considerable challenge. According to the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of Republican voters nationally are even somewhat confident in the accuracy of mail-in voting, compared to 88 percent of Democrats.“[Youngkin] could be interested in these new technologies, and he could be interested in a big vote-by-mail push,” says Rich Meagher, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. “But I don’t know if culturally the Republicans are going to be ready for it.”  

Republicans “are just taking the training wheels off the bike now and figuring out how to encourage their people to vote early,” Liam Watson, press secretary for the Virginia Democrats, tells me. “When we message Democratic voters in Virginia, we don’t have to work against four years of the musings of a charlatan who claims that these things are the basis of fraud.”  

Across the country, Republicans are still struggling to account for this vote-by-mail deficit. For instance, this spring, New Jersey Republicans launched an unprecedented effort to match Democrats’ historically high rates of absentee turnout, but so far, their voters have still requested and returned far fewer mail-in ballots than Democrats.  

Even so, the national GOP has also made moves to embrace mail-in voting this year. This summer, the Republican National Committee launched its new “Bank Your Vote” program to promote early and mail-in voting in the run-up to the 2024 election. Even Trump has expressed support for the platform, albeit while repeating false claims of voter fraud. “Republicans must get tougher and fight harder to cast our votes and get our ballots turned in earlier so Democrats can’t rig the polls against us on Election Day,” he said in a video in July. 

It appears that Republicans are finally getting wise to what the academic literature on vote-by-mail so often misses: Whichever party makes it easier for their supporters to vote will likely have the upper hand once the ballots are counted. And, perhaps more importantly, the party that denounces mail-in voting will face a clear disadvantage. Although the GOP may wish to make up for its 2020 missteps, it remains to be seen whether this newfound focus on vote by mail can actually compete with Democrats’ three-year head start. 

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Sarah McGrath is a former Washington Monthly intern.