RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Virginians can now vote in critical state elections that will decide the balance of power in the General Assembly, potentially leading to significant ripple effects on abortion access, education, the economy and other issues.  

This year’s high-stakes elections, the first under Virginia’s new state legislative districts, kicked off Friday with the start of early voting. Voters have 45 days to cast their ballots early at their local election office or through a mail-in absentee ballot before Election Day on Nov. 7.

Virginia’s state legislature is divided, with Republicans controlling the House of Delegates and Democrats having a majority in the state Senate.

With all 140 Virginia General Assembly seats on the ballot (some candidates are running unopposed), both parties hope to win both chambers to push forward their legislative agenda next year.

This has ignited a more concerted effort from Republicans, led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, to get their supporters to vote early in Virginia. Both parties have launched early voting initiatives, with Youngkin and candidates appearing across the commonwealth to boost early turnout.

Republicans’ push is a shift from previous years when GOP lawmakers voted against expanding the early voting window. Some raised concerns over absentee voting as former President Donald Trump railed against early voting in 2020. 

“Glenn Youngkin, I think rightfully and very cleverly has recognized that his party stands to lose ground if they don’t embrace the new rules the way Democrats have and he’s trying to counter that,” said Rich Meagher, associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College, in an interview with 8News.

“I think that will be helpful for maybe expanding the number of people who vote but the question is how many and whether the narrative from the national party and the narrative that’s sort of bubbling up in the national party from Trump supporters is too strong for even Youngkin’s messages to overcome,” Meagher added.

Abortion access has been a focus in Virginia, and across the country, since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion.

Republican efforts to restrict access to the procedure failed to pass through the Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate earlier this year, with Democrats touting the chamber’s ability to be a “brick wall” to GOP bills.

Abortion remains one of the most talked-about issues ahead of Election Day, with Democrats and Republicans targeting each other’s stances in campaign ads, mailers and public statements.

Democrats say they believe Republicans would seek to restrict the procedure, including potentially trying to pass an outright ban, if the party were to seize control of the Virginia General Assembly. Democrats have pointed to reports of Youngkin saying he would sign any bill “to protect life” in 2022 as an indicator that Republicans would seek a ban before 15 weeks.

Republicans, many of whom have come out in support of a ban after 15 weeks with exceptions that Youngkin has backed, have described Democrats’ position as “extreme,” pointing to previous Democratic efforts to loosen restrictions.

The GOP’s Virginia House caucus released a new ad titled “No Limits” using sound bites from Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax County) in 2019 in which she said her bill to ease restrictions on abortion would allow the procedure to be performed when a woman is about to give birth.

Del. Tran told The Washington Post then that she “misspoke” during the House committee meeting, telling the paper that, “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.’”

Meagher said it’s hard to figure out what a party might do once it gains power, but noted that he believes some Republicans, especially more conservative ones, “want to go further” than a 15-week limit.  

To Meagher, debates over the 15-week abortion limit, or any other cutoff, boil down to “a real more fundamental divide” for voters: “Should abortion be safe and legal? Should abortion be restricted and banned?”

Some voters across Virginia will also cast ballots in local races, including on Richmond’s second effort to have a casino built in the city. The 100 House of Delegates seats are up for elections every two years and Virginia state senators serve four-year terms.

Election Day is Nov. 7 when polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.