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Virginia polls open with six weeks of early voting

The state's Democratic majority passed laws in the last year that took Virginia from one of the hardest states to vote to one of the easiest.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia voters gathered in Richmond on Friday as events across the city marked the opening of early voting in the state’s anticipated 2021 elections, the first November race under new expansive voting laws aimed at increasing turnout.

Democrats currently hold the governor’s mansion as well as the lieutenant governor and attorney general’s offices, but they're all up for grabs this fall. The once bright-red state shifted to the left after years of rapid expansion in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia.

Between the increasingly diverse population, national GOP positions on immigration and social issues, and the election of former President Donald Trump, Democrats surged to victory in Virginia's first blue wave election in 2017 and now control both legislative chambers as well. 

While the top three statewide offices and all 100 House of Delegates seats are open this November, Democrats are well-positioned after Trump lost Virginia by 10 points in 2020. Democratic former governor and gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe is hoping to cash in on that anti-Trump sentiment, but former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate, has tried to downplay his socially conservative beliefs to attract moderate voters. 

To that end, Youngkin was noticeably absent as several hundred conservative anti-abortion activists participated in the third annual March for Life rally at the state Capitol in downtown Richmond on Friday. The rally was once a premiere event for Virginia GOP candidates to establish their anti-abortion stance, but Youngkin's absence went mostly unnoticed as those in attendance struggled to remember his name. 

Gloria Randolph, a retired senior from Chesterfield County just outside of Richmond, was among those who said she’d vote Republican no matter what after failing to name the gubernatorial candidate. 

“Each one of us has a part to play in what God is doing and I trust, wherever he is, he’s playing the part God has for him,” Randolph said of Youngkin's absence, before promising to cast her vote for him in the coming days.  

After getting caught by a Democratic operative saying he was avoiding abortion on the campaign trail because he knew how moderate voters would react, Youngkin expressed his clearest support yet for new abortion restrictions at the state’s first gubernatorial debate Thursday night. He said he’d still allow abortions in cases of rape, incest and injury to the mother, but he’d like to see a “pain threshold” bill, referring to when anti-abortion advocates argue a fetus can feel pain, which would drop the state’s abortion limit from 25 to 20 weeks.

“I don’t have a right, as a man, over that decision?” said Eric Hamilton, a Virginia Beach-based financier and March for Life attendee, who argued against a women’s right to chose.

As for Youngkin’s absence from an event he drove 90 miles for, Hamilton said, “I’m sure he’s a busy man."

Anti-abortion activists gather at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond for the third annual March for Life rally on Friday. (Brad Kutner/Courthouse News)

Across town at the Richmond registrar’s office, voters cast their ballots early, still under coronavirus restrictions with dividers for poll workers and freshly washed pens for paper ballots, but with a frequency that surprised Registrar Keith Balmer. 

“People are going to come out and vote early,” he said after hypothesizing that the 200 votes already cast by 1 p.m. Friday were a sign of things to come.

He attributed the high turnout to changes made in state election laws this year, including giving Virginians 45 business days of early voting along with some weekend ballot access. The changes moved Virginia from one of the nation’s worst states for ballot access to one of its best.

“You’ve got 47 days to vote in this election so you’ve got no excuse not to vote,” Balmer joked before pointing out another change enacted by Democratic lawmakers: “And you don’t need an excuse to vote early.” 

To further illustrate the contrast among Virginia voters on the left and right, while anti-abortion activists marched around the state Capitol Friday afternoon, Richmond resident Nikki Micholau cast her ballot for McAuliffe because of his promise to enshrine the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into state law. 

“It’s pretty easy for me this time, given what's going on all over the country right now, to come vote,” she said before gesturing outward and snubbing Youngkin for being against abortion. She also slammed the Republican candidate for not expressing support for vaccine and mask mandates. 

“Think about what could happen to their kids,” she said of statistics showing children are among the fastest-growing infection groups. “I don’t know how anybody could not be for vaccination and masking.” 

As for why she made the point to vote as early as possible, she said, “Nobody knows how many more days they have, ever."

Early voting runs through Virginia's Election Day, Nov. 2. Voters can register, find their polling place and see their ballot ahead of time through the state’s Department of Elections website

Follow Brad Kutner on Twitter

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