Virginia voters turn out to cast ballots in contentious race

After two decades of dwindling voter turnout for governor’s elections in Virginia, this year’s contentious race drew a slightly higher number of registered voters than in 2009, according to early estimates.

Some of the nearly 2.2 million people who voted in Virginia’s elections Tuesday said they were drawn to the polls by divisive issues such as abortion or lingering anger over the partial government shutdown. They were largely educated by millions of dollars worth of television attack ads and media coverage of the stark differences between the two leading candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II.

Virginia’s estimated turnout of 37 percent of eligible voters was still well below where it stood decades ago. In 1989, when L. Douglas Wilder (D) beat J. Marshall Coleman (R) in one of the closest races in state history, nearly 67 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Every year since then, the percentage has fallen, hovering for the past few races in the 40s. When Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) beat state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Batj) in 2009, just more than 36 percent of Virginia’s eligible voters participated.

There’s often a sharp drop-off in participation between presidential elections and those for governor. In the past three presidential elections, state turnout has been higher than 60 percent, with 66 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

That drop-off held true for the 2013 gubernatorial election, and many polling locations in Washington’s suburbs and exurbs reported an expected flow of voters throughout the day. But several precincts in Arlington were surprised by bursts of voters Tuesday morning. The precinct captain for the Charles Drew Community Center marveled: “This is extremely busy for a non-presidential year.” The captain at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center reported: “Turnout is surprisingly heavy.”

Many Virginians said they were well informed on this election. Cuccinelli’s campaign and party spent $8.6 million on television ads, while McAuliffe’s campaign and party spent nearly $13.9 million, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks spending.

A bump in turnout was no surprise to Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University who studies voting behavior. Going into Election Day, the state had already seen an increase in early voting, especially in areas that had previously voted for President Obama.

“It makes a lot of sense: When there’s an intense race going on, that draws people’s interest,” McDonald said.

Both campaigns had massive canvassing operations, which McDonald said was unlike anything the state has seen since the days of machine politics. Democrats have boasted that supporters have knocked on 1.5 million doors for McAuliffe’s campaign.

A Washington Post-Abt SRBI poll in late October found that 95 percent of likely voters had been “closely” following the governor’s race, up from 89 percent at the same time before the election in 2009, 87 percent in 2005 and 60 percent in 2001. The same poll asked likely voters how much they knew about the candidates; 81 percent said they knew “a lot” or a “fair amount” about McAuliffe, and 86 percent said the same for Cuccinelli.

Some voters cast their ballots enthusiastically. Others, begrudgingly. Some said they just hated one candidate enough to vote for the other.

“I voted for McAuliffe because the Republican slate seems to be a bunch of psychos,” said Brent Minor, who has lived in Alexandria since 1981 and usually votes for Democrats. “They’re just extreme and we don’t need any more extreme partisans. I can’t fathom how Cuccinelli and Jackson even got nominated.”

George Kinser, 67, said he has voted in every election since he turned 18, and he felt compelled to vote for Cuccinelli and other Republicans.

“I’m not a wild-eyed fanatic,” Kinser, who lives in western Loudoun County, said. “But I’m concerned that the principles and direction of this country, and it’s accelerating at a rate that scares me.”

Pat LiCalzi, a retired Arlington County government employee, said she voted “for the other guy, the independent” for governor.

The “other guy” is Robert Sarvis, a Libertarian who gathered more than 140,000 votes. Exit polls showed that Sarvis gathered votes from both Republicans and Democrats in what ultimately became a tight race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, with McAuliffe winning.

There had been worries that voter turnout could hit a historic low this year, as some voters have found the candidates sometimes unlikable and disliked their seemingly never-ending attack ads. The Post poll in late October found that 44 percent of likely voters were dissatisfied with their choice of candidates. About 60 percent of likely voters thought both McAuliffe and Cuccinelli had been conducting “mainly negative” campaigns.

That’s why Sarah Malaby didn’t even register to vote.

“I just wasn’t into either of the candidates,” said Malaby, who turned 18 this summer, lives in Warrenton and is working on an associate’s degree at Lord Fairfax Community College. “I don’t identify with Ken Cuccinelli because of his views on women, but I can’t say that I’m for Terry McAuliffe.”

The candidates spent their final days on the campaign trail urging their supporters not only to get themselves to the polls, but also to take their relatives, friends and neighbors with them. McAuliffe focused on young voters and minorities, with the help of President Obama and the Clintons.

Cuccinelli focused on the Washington exurbs and conservative strongholds, urging supporters to vote en mass and prove the polls wrong. In a park in Culpeper on Monday, Cuccinelli told a crowd, “You all are going to be much more decisive on the outcome of the election at this point than anyone up here.”

On Tuesday evening, Delia Andrews, 58, was ecstatic that the campaign season had finally come to an end. She had been flooded with mail and phone calls from the candidates, and she was disgusted with the millions wasted on television ads.

Andrews voted for both Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday — she wouldn’t say which ones — and then declared: “I’m so happy it’s over.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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