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As Virginia election draws near, GOP’s Youngkin continues campaigning on ‘election integrity’

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

In the final stretch of the race for Virginia governor, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin continues to campaign on the issue of “election integrity” — an issue that has galvanized the conservative base of the party.

On Monday evening, at a virtual “get to know the candidate” event hosted by the Richmond Crusade for Voters, a Black voting rights group, Youngkin called for an audit of voting machines to help voters feel confident in elections, despite saying at the first gubernatorial debate last month against Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe that he did not believe there had been significant voter fraud in Virginia elections.

“I think we need to make sure that people trust these voting machines. And I just think, I grew up in a world where you have an audit every year, in businesses you have an audit,” Youngkin said at the virtual forum when asked about his thoughts on voting rights laws. “So let’s just audit the voting machines, publish it so everybody can see it.”

Under state law, the Department of Elections is already required to coordinate an annual post-election audit of ballot scanner machines used in Virginia elections. The department conducted an audit of the 2020 election that found the results in Virginia to be accurate.

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While Youngkin’s call for election audits is not new — it’s long been part of his platform on “election integrity” — the issue also illustrates the dilemma the first-time candidate faces as he runs in a state President Biden won by 10 points: a careful balancing act on polarizing issues to ensure that he doesn’t alienate the conservative base still loyal to former president Donald Trump but that he can still entice crucial independents.

“As Glenn Youngkin said in February, he believes audits are a best practice when it comes to administering elections — just as audits are a routine best practice in the business world — and he will ensure Virginia continues to conduct audits and that they are thorough, efficient, and accurate,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said in a statement. “Glenn has been clear about his view of the 2020 election and nothing has changed.”

Last month, Youngkin tried to duck a question about whether he would have certified Biden’s win if he was in Congress, before he ultimately answered that he would. Similarly, it took months — and securing the Republican nomination — before the former businessman publicly acknowledged the legitimacy of Biden’s election.

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After he secured the nomination, Youngkin eased away from election integrity as a main platform point but remained firm on his original promises. He attended an election integrity rally in August, and has repeatedly called for poll watchers and other measures to ensure a secure and fair election.

Youngkin appeared at a rally in Martinsville on Monday evening with state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), one of the state’s most prominent voices embracing Trump’s claims of a stolen election. Chase, whom Youngkin defeated for the GOP nod in the party’s convention, has repeatedly called for a review of the 2020 election in Virginia.

“The single most important thing we can do to protect election integrity in Virginia is to get Glenn Youngkin elected as our next governor,” Chase said at the rally.

Youngkin has another planned campaign stop in Chesterfield on Friday with Chase.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said the balancing act for Youngkin goes beyond just audits and election integrity. It’s the same fine line he must walk for other big issues — including vaccines — to maintain his conservative base and attract suburbanites in the tight race.

“This is the difficult tightrope act that Youngkin has to perform in this campaign,” Rozell said. “It’s not easy to do, but that’s the strategy, find that clever middle position.”

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But searching for a middle ground on election integrity is a little more difficult, Rozell said, because many voters associate the issue with Trump — another association Youngkin has been careful to balance.

“It opens a possible opportunity for McAuliffe to make that breakthrough he’s been trying to do this whole campaign, which is tying Youngkin to what’s been widely known as the ‘big lie,’ ” Rozell said.

That has been a key Democratic strategy in the race. McAuliffe has jumped at every opportunity to connect the two and suggest that a vote for Youngkin is a vote to bring Trump-like leadership to Virginia.

“Glenn Youngkin is calling for audits of Virginia’s voting machines for the same reason he based his entire campaign on his 'election integrity task force’ — this is who he is,” Democratic Party of Virginia spokesman Manuel Bonder said in a statement. “Youngkin thinks this is ‘the most important issue’ because his top priority is bringing Donald Trump’s agenda to Virginia.”

Rozell said he thought Youngkin has done surprisingly well at separating himself from Trump without alienating the base. During the two gubernatorial debates, he said, Youngkin was reaching for middle-road voters, focusing on issues such as law enforcement and cutting taxes.

On election integrity, while not as prominent in the campaign as it once was, Youngkin has been consistent in his messaging, Rozell said.

“When it comes to this issue, how does the candidate back off from such a strong commitment he had made?” Rozell said. “There’s been a change in tone and emphasis, but not necessarily in substance.”