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Opinion/Column: Democracy in Danger in Virginia?
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Opinion/Column: Democracy in Danger in Virginia?

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Virginians head to the polls today to choose their next governor. They’ll do so following a campaign that has been as partisan and polarized as ever. With Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin essentially tied in the polls, the candidates have spent the final days of the race hoping to mobilize their respective bases with pitched partisan appeals.

Despite the partisan discord, new data from our statewide survey of 1,046 registered voters in Virginia suggests that Democrats and Republicans actually agree on something! Unfortunately, where they find consensus is around the notion that democracy is in danger: More than 90% of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans believe that in the United States, democracy is being tested, or even under attack. Fewer than 10% of Virginia voters say that democracy is in “no danger” at all.

Where do these perceptions come from?

Not from voters’ personal experiences. In fact, Virginia voters of all partisan stripes had similar experiences – and good ones! –  in 2020. Of those who cast their ballots in person, two-thirds reported having to wait less than 10 minutes. Of those who voted absentee, 94% said their ballot arrived without delay.

Election Day woes were few and far between as well. Ninety-seven percent of voters had no trouble finding their polling place; 96% encountered no harassment or bothersome behavior while waiting in line; 98% had no difficulty providing identification; and 99% were checked in with no problems because their names appeared on the rolls. While we certainly don’t want to diminish the challenges that some voters faced, strong majorities of Republicans (85%) and Democrats (84%) report encountering no major problems at the polls last year.

Instead, these perceptions – that democracy is in danger, or under attack – are rooted in partisan national narratives about elections. 

For Republicans, the national message over the course of the last year has been one of election fraud – people voting more than once; rigged and hacked election machines; deliberately miscounted and even destroyed ballots. These allegations, which have featured prominently in the Virginia governor’s race, resonate with Virginia Republicans. Indeed, more than two-thirds of the Republicans in our survey believe the 2020 election was “stolen from Donald Trump.” Nearly 6 in 10 think the presidential election was “rigged.” Put somewhat differently, only 34% of Virginia Republican voters agree that “the 2020 election was fair and Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate.” 

Messages about an allegedly stolen presidential election have trickled down to the state level. A majority of the Republicans we surveyed (52%) are not confident that elections reflect the will of the people. Almost half (47%) believe it is somewhat or very likely that the 2021 elections in Virginia will be “rigged.” And less than one-quarter are “very confident” that votes in this year’s gubernatorial election will be counted as voters intended.

Democrats’ perceptions of electoral integrity couldn’t be more different. Ninety-six percent are confident that the votes in this year’s gubernatorial election will be counted as voters intend. Hardly a surprise given that 93% are also confident that the 2020 presidential election results were accurate and 96% think the outcome was legitimate.

Yet Democrats’ perceptions of a democracy in danger are also linked to a national conversation. For them, that conversation has to do with whether the results of a free and fair election will be respected. For many, these concerns were heightened by the events of January 6, 2021. Three-quarters characterize what happened in Washington, DC, on January 6th as a “riot” or an “insurrection.” Nearly half (45%) think that the events of that day were an attempt to overthrow the government. (Only 8% of Republicans feel that way.) It’s through that lens that Democrats will cast their ballots on Tuesday.

The Virginia Department of Elections is clearly aware of these perceptions and has taken numerous steps to address election confusion and concerns about fraud. Earlier this month, they launched a “Vote with Confidence” website that provides Virginia voters with information about where, when, and how to vote. The site also features a “MythBusters” section, which debunks claims about the 2020 election. Moreover, local election officials are working to communicate to voters that they have little to worry about – on Election Day or in the aftermath. Fairfax County General Registrar Scott Konopasek, for example, is working to convey to the electorate that “Virginians have no reason to doubt the integrity of any of the elections they voted in.”

But the national headwinds are incredibly strong. We’ve long known that elections in the United States are nationalized. In recent decades, national issues dominate local political agendas. National figures endorse and stump for local candidates. And money for state-level candidates floods in from national donors. But our survey results suggest that this same type of nationalization now also applies to voter confidence, perceptions of electoral integrity, and assessments of the health of American democracy. Put simply, no politics is local.

As long as national narratives trump facts and personal experience about the state of electoral institutions, democracy will indeed be in danger.

Jennifer L. Lawless is the Leone Reeves and George W. Spicer Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. Paul Freedman is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

The results in this piece are based on a pre-election survey of a representative sample of 1,046 registered Virginia voters conducted from October 21 – October 29, 2021. The authors designed and conducted the survey, which was funded by the Karsh Institute at the University of Virginia and fielded by Dynata.

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