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Virginia early voters favor Biden, Post-Schar poll finds

Early voters line up in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 22. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Voters who support former vice president Joe Biden are fueling an unprecedented surge in early voting in Virginia, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll that finds nearly 7 in 10 early ballots were cast for the Democrat seeking the White House.

About 1.95 million Virginians have voted in person or by mail, according to state data — nearly half the total number who turned out for the 2016 contest, and more than triple the 538,410 voters who voted early four years ago.

Biden leads Trump 52 percent to 41 percent among Virginia likely voters, a Post-Schar School poll finds

Almost 7 in 10 (69 percent) of those who cast an early ballot this year say they voted for Biden, while roughly a quarter (24 percent) say they voted for President Trump in the survey, conducted Oct. 13 to 19. Biden also leads with 65 percent support among likely voters who said they plan to vote early but haven’t yet, while the president leads (59 percent to 35 percent) among voters who plan to vote on Election Day.

Antipathy toward Trump motivated Rait Musie, an optometry student from Ashburn, to get her absentee ballot in the mail.

“I voted early just to make sure that Trump doesn’t win this year, and to be an example for everyone my age to go out and vote,” said Musie, 26, who has been pestering her friends to do the same.

Read full results from the Post-Schar School Virginia poll

But Larry Vincent will cast his ballot for Trump on Nov. 3, at the polling place that’s walking distance from his Newport News house.

“I insist on doing it the old-school way,” said Vincent, 58, a retired Air Force sergeant who teaches middle school social studies. “I don’t trust the mail-in deal.”

Virginia Democrats have embraced early voting for years as a matter of policy, calling it a means to expand access to the polls. But state GOP leaders, more focused on tightening restrictions in the name of election integrity, succeeded in limiting early voting to those with an excuse for not casting a ballot on Election Day, such as business or personal travel.

That changed this year, after Democrats took control of the state House and Senate and passed legislation allowing “no-excuse” absentee voting. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed it into law.

Post-Schar School poll: Majority of Virginia voters approve of Northam’s job performance

In-person early voting, which began Sept. 18, runs through Saturday. Absentee ballots must be dropped off in person at registrar’s offices or drop boxes by Nov. 3, or be postmarked by that date and received by mail no later than Nov. 6.

Among likely voters, the Post-Schar School poll found that 29 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents say they have already voted as of mid-October compared with about 14 percent of Republicans.

Voters with college degrees were more likely to say they had voted early (28 percent) than those without degrees (17 percent). Early voting was more common among older voters, who could be more vulnerable to the virus. Those 65 and older were more likely to have already voted (29 percent) than those 40 to 64 (20 percent) or 18 to 39 (18 percent).

Race was not a factor, with 22 percent of White voters and 23 percent of Black voters saying they had already voted.

Virginia loosened rules on early voting before the novel coronavirus descended on the state. But the pandemic has added to interest in early voting, with some voters eager to avoid Election Day crowds.

The poll found that 65 percent of registered voters are very or somewhat worried about themselves or a family member catching the virus. Among those who are very worried, 32 percent said they voted early, compared with 20 percent of those who are “somewhat worried” and 15 percent of those who expressed less concern.

That factor tends to reinforce the partisan divide over early voting because the virus and related safety precautions have become so politicized, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Democrats have been more willing to wear masks and observe other precautions while Trump, by holding mass rallies, has encouraged his followers to flout them, he said.

“I think it’s a combination of the partisan divide on issues of safety protocols — what’s safe to do and not — and the president’s own signaling to his supporters that early balloting lacks legitimacy somehow and the right and only way is to vote on Election Day,” he said.

Hershel Justus said he’s not at all worried about the coronavirus and plans to stand in line on Election Day in his southwestern Virginia town to vote for Trump.

Justus, 64, said his Buchanan County community — near the West Virginia and Kentucky borders — has been barely nicked by the virus. As of Monday, that county had a total of 258 cases, with just two fatalities.

Nonetheless, Justus says he wears a mask and keeps his distance from others whenever he is out grocery shopping or running errands and he plans to mask up for Election Day. But he said he believes the Democratic Party has tried to stoke fears about the pandemic to take votes away from Trump.

“People are trying to scare me to death,” he said. “I can get the flu and die. I can get bronchitis or pneumonia and die.”

Trump can’t stop tweeting about ever-bluer Virginia and its governor. But his campaign is quiet on TV.

Kathryn Slagle is a Biden supporter who enjoys the ritual of going to the polls on Election Day.

“My plan was to wait until Election Day just because I like the tradition,” said Slagle, 36, a high school English teacher from Emporia, not far from the North Carolina border.

But with coronavirus cases spiking in her region, she said, “I decided to go ahead and vote early.”

“I didn’t want to be told I had to quarantine for any reason and then be told not to vote,” she said. “It was important that my voice be heard.”

The Post-Schar School poll was conducted Oct. 13 to 19 among a random sample of 1,001 registered voters in Virginia, including 908 likely voters. The error margin among registered voters is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, and among likely voters it is four points. The error margin is larger for results among subgroups. Overall, 71 percent of respondents were reached on cellphones and 29 percent on landlines.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

Voting in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Map: Where to vote early in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

Voting guides: D.C. | Maryland | VirginiaHow to vote: D.C. | Maryland | Virginia

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