U.S. early voting approaches record 30 million mark

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (Reuters) – Nearly 30 million Americans have cast early ballots in November’s presidential election, shattering records as voters adjust to the coronavirus pandemic, including in Florida, a battleground state that on Monday opened polls to early voting.

Republican President Donald Trump, running out of time to change the dynamics of a race that he appears to be losing, headed to Arizona on Monday amid signs that Democrats are leading the surge in early voting.

In a conference call with campaign staff, Trump showed characteristic self-confidence in describing the state of the race, notwithstanding national opinion polls that show him well behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

“We’re going to win,” he said. “I wouldn’t have told you that maybe two, three weeks ago.”

More than 29.6 million votes either by mail or in person had been recorded in 44 states and Washington, D.C., as of mid-afternoon on Monday, according to the U.S. Elections Project at the University of Florida.

Voters have cast more than 21% of the overall total in 2016, when more than 136.6 million Americans cast ballots. In 2016, there were 5.9 million early votes by Oct. 23, 16 days before Election Day.

The surge this time has been driven by many voters’ desire to avoid the risks of the coronavirus associated with potentially long lines on Election Day, Nov. 3. But it also appeared to reflect enthusiasm among Democrats in particular.

DEMOCRATIC BALLOTS IN LEAD

In states that publicly report the party registration of voters, nearly 54% of ballots came from registered Democrats, compared with 25% from Republicans.

Biden had no public events on Monday, instead taping a “60 Minutes” interview in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, that CBS will broadcast on Sunday. The former vice president again tested negative for the coronavirus, his campaign said on Monday. He and Trump have a debate scheduled for Thursday.

His running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, visited Florida to encourage supporters to vote early, after spending the weekend off the campaign trail as a precaution when an aide tested positive for COVID-19.

“This man had an opportunity to deal with (the virus) but denied fact, denied science, and lied to the American people,” Harris told supporters at a “drive-in” rally in Orlando. She was expected to participate in a rally in Jacksonville later.

Social media posts showed lines of voters in some of the 52 of Florida’s 67 counties that began in-person early voting on Monday, suggesting similarly high levels of enthusiasm to vote as seen in other early voting states this year.

Hundreds of people, most wearing face masks, stood in pouring rain in the morning outside the public library in Coral Gables, a majority-Hispanic city near Miami.

Louis Perez, 57, an insurance fraud investigator, said he was voting for Biden because of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“He lied about it right from the beginning,” Perez, who is not affiliated with a party, said of Trump.

Registered Republican Antonio Sanchez, an architect who arrived in the United States from Communist Cuba and was also voting in Coral Gables, said he supported Trump because he “stands for freedom” and against socialism.

“My two daughters are doctors. I don’t think this could have happened anyplace other than America,” said Sanchez, 59.

Florida is widely seen as a must-win for Trump, whose path to victory becomes razor-thin if he loses the southern state. The state’s prize of 29 electoral votes is tied with New York for third most, behind only California and Texas, in the race for the 270 Electoral College votes that determine the presidential winner under the U.S. system.

BIDEN 49% TRUMP 47% IN FLORIDA

An Oct. 7-14 Reuters/Ipsos survey of the state showed Biden with 49% of the support and Trump 47%, within the survey’s credibility interval of 4 percentage points.

Both campaigns have poured advertising money into Florida, although Biden, who has significantly outraised Trump since the summer while setting consecutive monthly records for a U.S. candidate, has outspent his Republican rival.

Trump will stage rallies first in Prescott and later in Tucson, Arizona, another battleground state. He has mocked Biden for holding fewer campaign events and for limiting the number of attendees, while Biden and public health experts have assailed Trump for hosting crowded rallies with few masks and little social distancing amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 220,000 Americans.

On his call earlier on Monday, Trump told his campaign staff that Americans were fed up with pandemic restrictions, even as case numbers rise in many states, and called Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, a “disaster.”

“People are saying, ‘Whatever. Just leave us alone.’ They’re tired of it. People are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots,” said Trump, who has played down the pandemic for months.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Coral Gables, Joseph Ax, James Oliphant and Simon Lewis; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Stephen Coates and Howard Goller)

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