Republican victors on Tuesday likely benefited from laws making voting easier that the GOP opposed

Voters hold their ballots as they wait in line to register their votes at a school in Midlothian, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Voters hold their ballots as they wait in line to register their votes at a school in Midlothian, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. AP Photo/Steve Helber
  • Tuesday’s elections show Republicans can win in high-turnout elections and likely benefitted from expanded voting laws.
  • Republicans had big wins in Virginia after Democratic lawmakers made voting easier.
  • Limiting voting rights “is not only bad for democracy, but…bad politically, too,” an election expert told Insider.

On Tuesday, Republicans clobbered Democrats across the board in Virginia and came within three percentage-points of knocking out a Democratic governor in New Jersey – both in states where Democratic lawmakers have expanded access to the ballot and made it easier to vote over the past two years.

Tuesday’s results were both a victory and a wake-up call for Republicans. Contrary to the false claims spread by former President Donald Trump and his allies that US elections are beset with fraud, the results affirm that American elections are secure and enable both parties to win fair and square.

It also shows the state’s Republicans can win in a high-turnout election and may have even been benefactors of the expanded access voting reforms they opposed.

In Virginia on Tuesday, the GOP flipped control of the governorship, the lieutenant governorship, the attorney general’s office, and five seats in the House of Delegates, putting them in striking distance of winning the chamber altogether, and completing a sweep of the biggest offices on the ballot.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who lost his bid to hold the governor’s office again on Tuesday, restored voting rights to hundreds of thousands of Virginians with felony convictions by executive order in 2016, with numerous other states including Florida, Kentucky, Iowa following his lead and rolling back their strict felony disenfranchisement laws.

And when Democrats won back control of Virginia’s state legislature in 2019, they quickly went to work making it easier to vote.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin , left, and his wife Suzanne, second from left, greet supporters during a rally in Chesterfield, Va., Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin , left, and his wife Suzanne, second from left, greet supporters during a rally in Chesterfield, Va., Monday, Nov. 1, 2021. Steve Helber/AP

Virginia Republicans won under rules shaped by Democrats.

In April 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a slew of bills to repeal the state’s previous strict voter identification law, automatically register Virginians to vote when they do business at motor vehicle offices, establish 45 days of early in-person voting, allow absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day to arrive up to three days after the election, and made Election Day a state holiday. Republicans voted against the bills with the exception of the absentee voting extension.

This year, Virginia Democrats went further in passing a state-level Voting Rights Act that enshrines new civil rights protections into law.

“Virginia has made a number of significant strides to make their election process more accessible and more secure. And I think that should give folks even greater confidence in the integrity of Virginia elections,” David Levine, a former election official in Richmond, Virginia and election integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told Insider.

In New Jersey too, Gov. Phil Murphy nearly lost to his Republican opponent in a nail-bitingly close election after signing a bill establishing 10 days of in-person early voting in the state earlier this year.

And next door in Pennsylvania, where some Republicans are now trying to undo the expansion of no-excuse mail voting they passed almost entirely along party lines in 2019, the GOP won two key statewide judicial races, including a state Supreme court election, with mail voting.

Tuesday’s election results confirm a wealth of academic research, including of the 2020 election, that such reforms can boost turnout but don’t substantially favor either party.

“One of the things that I’m hopeful occurs is that people recognize that trying to limit right voting rights, trying to threaten the integrity of the legitimacy of elections themselves, and trying to cast false aspersions about the elections process is not only bad for democracy, but…bad politically, too,” Levine said. “Perhaps I am naive, but I would like to think that strategies that reinforce democracy are strategies that are worth pursuing right by major political actors.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, second from right, and his wife Tammy Murphy talk with poll workers before voting in Red Bank, N.J., Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, second from right, faced a surprisingly close nail-biter reelection bid due to strong GOP turnout. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Neither party can bet on high turnout to win.

Tuesday’s results also continue to show that high voter turnout doesn’t necessarily benefit Democrats, as the GOP base has taken on more blue-collar and rural voters who turn out to vote less reliably than college-educated whites.

“There are folks who believe that higher turnout is politically beneficial to them, and maybe there are other folks that believe lower voter turnout is politically beneficial to them,” Levine said. “And I’m hopeful that these elections are just the latest to indicate that that’s a fallacy.”

Democrats’ election losses and closer-than-expected wins weren’t because their voters didn’t show up: McAuliffe won over 190,000 more votes than Northam in 2017, and Murphy earned over 100,000 more votes on Tuesday than in his 2017 gubernatorial run.

But Republican voters, motivated by dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden and by local issues like education in places like Virginia, showed up in far greater numbers.

In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin won 85% of Trump’s 2020 vote share in the state while McAuliffe won 66% of Biden’s. And in New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli won 64% of Trump’s 2020 vote share in the state as Murphy won 48% of Biden’s.

In stark contrast to Trump’s defeat in November 2020, Republicans responded to Tuesday’s election with nary a peep about the election being corrupted by voter fraud, no complaints about Virginia’s new voting laws undermining election integrity and being unfair to the GOP, or even vague pronouncements about the need to address “irregularities” or “restore faith” in the electoral process.

“I don’t pretend to be an expert on Virginia voting law, I can say it was a free and fair election in Virginia. Virginia’s set up a system that seems to be working,” top GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said at a Thursday press conference on Capitol Hill.

Now it remains to be seen whether successful Republicans like Youngkin, who stopped short of calling the 2020 election stolen but campaigned on bolstering election integrity and floated an audit of all the states’ voting equipment, get in the way of their own party’s clear success under more expansive voting rules.

Bryan Metzger contributed reporting.