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Massive voter turnout may slow ballot count in Az

Election results not finalized until end of November

While a majority of votes will be counted by Tuesday night in Arizona, high turnout may mean some close races won't be called for days as more ballots are reviewed under election security measures, Pima County officials said.

Even before Election Day, more votes were cast early in Arizona than all of the ballots that were cast in the 2016 election — some 2.6 million early votes already received.

Most votes cast on Tuesday, along with the tremendous wave of early ballots dropped off by Monday, will be included in the first vote tallies released Tuesday night just after 8 p.m.

Those initial unofficial results will be enough for the public to know which candidates won in a number of races. But other ballots may mean tight races have unknown outcomes for several days — not an unfamiliar situation in Arizona. Some recent races here have taken weeks — even more than a month — to have a definite result. But regardless of the speed, the election here won't be declared final at the official canvass until November 30 at the earliest, under state law.

Early ballots that were sent out to voters but not returned until Tuesday — what officials call "late early ballots" — and provisional ballots (cast by voters who need to provide more information for their ballots to be added to the count, or other issues at the polls) must be held back and each one verified in the days following Election Day. Also not yet counted in the first unofficial results will be any early ballots that need to be "cured" by voters, who are being contacted by election officials if there are any questions about their ballots (usually signature-matching issues).

Those security measures block voters from casting multiple ballots, and allow voters to provide proof that their votes should be counted if there is any question at the polling place.

Pima County voters have been casting a record number of early ballots — more than 413,000 votes by Monday. The vast majority of Pima voters asked to vote early — just more than 500,000 of the 635,000 registered voters in the county. 65 percent of all Pima voters had already voted before Election Day, c causing election workers to put in double shifts for the past two weeks to handle the load, but there will still be ballots to be verified and added to the vote counts for the rest of the week, officials said.

While races are often "called" by news organizations on election night, and candidates often declare victory or concede a loss based on the first wave of results, those are informal moves. Vote counting always continues until all valid ballots have been added to the totals — sometimes a lengthy process.

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Ballot types

While there are four main types of ballots — early, polling place, late early and provisional — even within those categories there are some ballots that are added to the count more quickly.

Early votes: Both early votes that were mailed out and returned, either by mail or by dropping them off before this week, and early ballots cast in person at voting sites, have been reviewed, verified and tabulated for the past two weeks. But some early votes need additional information before being verified — usually because of a question about the signature on the outer envelope. Staff from the Pima County Recorder's Office work to contact voters via phone, email, and even by sending a letter as a last resort, so they can verify that they did cast the early ballot that was returned.

That process of "curing" ballots so that every valid vote can be counted continues after Election Day, with voters having a week to provide proof.

Polling place ballots: Votes cast in the traditional manner, in person at an assigned polling place on Tuesday. Except for a limited number, those ballots are included in the initial unofficial vote counts released on Tuesday night.

Late earlies: Early ballots that were mailed out, but not returned until being dropped off (at any polling place) on Election Day. Those ballots are held back to be reviewed later, as each must have its signature verified, as well as being compared to the rolls of voters who cast ballots at polling places, to block any attempts to vote twice. As with all early ballots, some late earlies may need to be cured by voters after Tuesday in order for them to be counted.

Provisionals: Any voter who requests a ballot must be provided one. Voters who are not on the rolls at a precinct polling site on Tuesday will be asked to cast a provisional ballot, which is subject to verification before being sent to be counted. If a voter can demonstrate that they were registered to vote in Pima County and went to the correct polling place for their residence, it will be counted. Provisionals are also voted by those who are marked as having been sent an early ballot, even if that ballot wasn't returned — that being another measure to prevent voting fraud attempts.

For the thousands of voters who received an early ballot but did not mail it back or drop it off — because they misplaced it or decided to vote in person at the polls — those provisional ballots will be verified and added to the counts released in the days after Election Day. But voters who cast provisionals and then don't follow up when asked for more info will not have their ballots sent to be counted.

Ballot verification is handled by the Pima County Recorder's Office, which keeps voter registration records. Ballot counting is done by the Pima County Elections Department. Both offices have a meticulous process for reviewing and handling ballots.

“Be part of the solution, not the problem,” County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez said. “That means if you were issued an early ballot, drop it off. A lot of the hold up comes from getting the earlies tabulated.”

“Provisionals create problems,” Rodriguez said. "Make sure you know your polling place. A lot of people won’t have the same polling places they had for last year. If churches aren’t having groups, what makes you think you can go there to vote? Make sure you go online to the Pima County Recorder’s website and look for your polling location under election information,” Rodriguez said.

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Lawsuits after the election may also delay any final outcomes in close races, Rodriguez said.

“They’re already preparing their briefs,” Rodriguez said about lawyers preparing post-election litigation. “We’ll be slammed on both ends as we pull people back to confirm their ballots and get ready for lawsuits. The good thing is election cases go relatively quickly through court, but it really throws a wrench in the system.”

In the weekend before the election, Rodriguez said about herself and her staff, “We’re pooped. We’ve been working all day. We work two shifts starting at 2:30 in the morning and going until 8 at night.”

Rodriguez said they’ve broken all records for early ballot voting in the county, and their voter drop off site at curbs around the area have brought in record numbers as well.

They’re covering a big area, Rodriguez said about Pima County elections staff, that has required them to collect ballots from sites as far as Oro Valley daily to bring to the election center near the airport.

'Official' results not released until end of month

While the first batch of unofficial results will be released about an hour after the 7 p.m. closing of polls on Tuesday, the final certified results for the state won't be declared until the end of the month, leaving plenty of time for ballots to be reviewed and every last vote counted.

What is known as the "official canvass" for Arizona will take place on November 30. Results in local races won't be canvassed and declared until at least a week after the election, with the county Board of Supervisors having up to 20 days to await the final counts.

If recounts or lawsuits are still ongoing at the end of the month, the statewide canvass will be pushed back day-to-day until a final result is declared.

For the presidential election, the Electoral College will vote in mid-December, based on the outcomes in each state, and the U.S. House of Representatives will count those votes on January 6, to determine who will be inaugurated on January 20.

Southern Arizonans have seen races take a while to determine before — including two races that featured a current candidate, Martha McSally. The Republican was appointed to the Senate to fill a vacant seat after losing the 2018 election to Kyrsten Sinema. TucsonSentinel.com was the first news outlet to call that race — on the Monday following the election the previous week. Even then, despite Sinema's insurmountable lead, there were more than 170,000 ballots left to be reviewed and counted.

In McSally's first general election win, she beat incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron Barber by just 167 votes, after a narrow margin triggered the first congressional recount in Arizona history. The outcome of that 2014 election wasn't known until December 17.

Preceding Barber in that House seat was U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whose 2010 re-election wasn't assured until the Friday after Election Day.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A voter enters a polling place at the Himmel Park library on Tuesday.