Update: Republicans reverse stance on counting early ballots in McSally-Sinema race
Arizona Republicans, prompted by a narrow U.S. Senate race, first sued to halt elections officials from contacting voters to verify early ballots handed in on Election Day, but then moved to extend that process through Saturday.
With some 600,000 ballots remaining to be reviewed and potentially added to the count, and the margin between GOP candidate Martha McSally and Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema standing at just 17,000 votes, Republicans sued state and county election officials to bar them from contacting voters whose signatures on early ballots dropped off on Election Day do not match the voter rolls.
Thursday evening, the margin flipped to 2,106 votes in favor of the Democrat, with Sinema taking the lead as counting continued.
After a judge refused a GOP request to have county officials segregate early ballots with questioned signatures, Republicans on Thursday afternoon changed course. Now, the GOP wants the court to order each of Arizona's 15 county recorders to allow voters to verify their signatures through Saturday.
A hearing in the case will be held in Maricopa County Superior Court at 2 p.m. on Friday.
Document: GOP complaint re: Senate ballot count
Document: GOP TRO motion re: Senate ballot count
Document: GOP moves to extend ballot verification
Pima County has followed such a practice for years, and Maricopa County — under first-term County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat — began doing it this year.
Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez has said that her staff attempts to reach voters with signature mismatches by phone, to ensure that ballots are valid and should be added to the final tally.
Republicans claimed in court documents that election workers can follow such a practice prior to 7 p.m. on Election Day, but cannot do so after that. The GOP alleged that different counties follow different procedures regarding early ballots with signature mismatches after the election, which they claim is an equal protection violation.
Pima County — which has in the past set a deadline of 5 p.m. on the Friday after an election for a voter to "cure" a ballot — has yet to file a brief responding to the suit, but took part in a telephonic scheduling hearing on Thursday.
"We objected to segregating the ballots at this point as we already in process and cannot start a new procedure right in the middle of the process. The judge agreed," Rodriguez said.
In Pima County, there were more than 59,000 early ballots remaining to be verified after Tuesday night, with the majority having been handed in by voters on Election Day. Including provisional ballots, there were more than 85,000 ballots left to be reviewed, with most expected to be added to the count.
The majority of the outstanding uncounted ballots in the state were in Maricopa County, but a breakdown of early ballots and provisionals there to be reviewed was not available.
"It seems that several counties are also reaching out to those voters that dropped off their vote by mail ballot on Election Day," Rodriguez said, "... following up with a phone calls. "
"Pima and Maricopa (counties) just have the most calls to make because of volume," she said.
"It seems the only county that does not do this is Yavapai; they are the only one that stated this," said Rodriguez, an elected Democrat. Leslie Hoffman, the Republican recorder for Yavapai County, invalidates ballots if the signatures do not match without contacting voters, Rodriguez said.
"I am not sure if the voters even know this as she does not advise them," she said.
Statewide, there are about 600,000 ballots left to be counted. Those ballots could be the deciding factor in a number of races, most notably the U.S. Senate race between U.S. Reps. McSally and Sinema. The pair were just 17,000 votes apart Thursday. Most of the uncounted ballots are in Maricopa County — where Sinema held a narrow 479,000 to 471,000 lead — and Pima County, where the Democrat led 167,000 to 129,000.
Additional ballots counted in those counties are expected to add to Sinema's total, perhaps allowing her to take the lead in the last undecided Senate race in the nation.
Updates to the count were expected around 5 p.m. on Thursday.
The Democrat's campaign said "when the Maricopa County Recorder releases its first batch of ballots this evening, there will still be approximately half a million votes left to count. Once they are counted, we are confident that Kyrsten Sinema will be the next senator for the state of Arizona."
The GOP lawsuit will be heard before Judge Margaret Mahoney, a member of the Maricopa County Superior Court bench since 2002.
The judge directed that any motions to intervene by outside parties be filed by Thursday afternoon.
"The judge also ordered that no discovery requests be filed and that the parties try to agree to the underlying facts to shorten or eliminate the need for testimony. Those stipulated facts must be filed by midnight," said Chris Roads, Pima County's chief deputy recorder.
McSally sued to halt provisional count in 2014
McSally's congressional campaign sued to halt Pima County's count of provisional ballots in the 2014 general election, but a judge refused her move to block adding additional ballots.
McSally's lead eroded as provisional ballots were tallied in that race, which eventually saw her oust U.S. Rep. Ron Barber by just 167 votes after a lengthy recount process.