One career, 374 votes: Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell could win, lose by a sliver

Purcell has held her position as County Recorder of Maricopa County for nearly 30 years. (Photo by Michelle Chance/Cronkite News)

Employees at the Maricopa County Tabulation Election Center process ballots from Tuesday’s Primary Election. (Photo by Michelle Chance/Cronkite News)

Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell’s career, after 27 relatively tranquil years disrupted by one major upheaval, is balancing on a thin blade of a few hundred votes that separate her from a win or a loss.

On election night Tuesday, unofficial results showed her 350 votes behind her Republican opponent. Thursday, as more votes were counted, the results flipped. Purcell was 374 votes ahead, according to the county election website.

Purcell became politically vulnerable after she drastically reduced poll locations in the March presidential-preference election, leading to long lines of angry voters and a Justice Department investigation into claims her decision disenfranchised voters.

She first trailed Republican opponent Aaron Flannery by less than one percent, then moved ahead of him by the same margin, out of more than 280,000 votes counted. Still, provisional and early ballots in all races still need to be counted, with spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartholomew saying the ballot counts for all races may go through Saturday.

State law requires an automatic recount if fewer than 10 votes separate county candidates, but either Purcell or Flannery could still ask for a recount if the separation were greater. Candidates requesting recount are required to provide evidence of tampering or voter fraud in court, and if a judge rules in favor of a recount the candidate requesting must pay the costs.

Asked if she would seek a recount, “No, not at all,” Purcell responded, speaking earlier this week at the vote-tabulation center in downtown Phoenix.

If there is a recount, Purcell would continue to avoid the area where ballots are counted, a practice she has kept throughout her career, according Bartholomew.

“She is never in a room with live ballots,” Bartholomew said.

Purcell, who has overseen elections for nearly three decades, has never faced serious opposition until now. She said Wednesday she hopes voters took the span of her full career into consideration when marking their ballots.

“I hope that people are not looking at these election processes in the rearview mirror,” Purcell said. She said the fiasco, for which she apologized even as she was flayed by Arizona residents at a legislative hearing just days after the election, is the exception to “27 years of excellent service.”

“I don’t like being defined by one mistake that I made,” Purcell said. “I know I made that mistake and we’ve corrected it and we’ve gone on from there.”That point resonated with Tempe resident Anne King, who said election officials deserve a second chance.

“Especially, someone who’s been in office for almost 30 years shouldn’t be judged on one time that the voting didn’t go well,” said King, who took only a few minutes to vote on Tuesday. Purcell’s office provided more than 700 polling locations, compared to 60 in March.

But others were not as charitable, saying Purcell needs to be held accountable.

Dianne Post, a longtime poll worker and attorney, said Purcell’s poor planning during the presidential preference election was “a huge failure in leadership.”

Joe Murphy, a small business owner, said he waited in line for five hours to vote on that frustrating day in March. Murphy said he has been a poll volunteer for nearly 30 years, and the long lines at polling places are nothing new.

“I think she has been doing voter suppression for as long as she has been in office,” Murphy said.

Despite the criticism, Purcell said she has no regrets. She admitted some of this year has been “disappointing.”

Purcell would not reveal if she has any plans if she loses, saying her main focus is wrapping up the primary election.

Thursday’s vote tallies were updated by 5 p.m. Bartholomew said provisional ballots in the county were expected to be completed that evening and counting for remaining early ballots would resume Friday afternoon. The final results are not expected until Saturday.

Once that’s done, Purcell has another looming responsibility that will take her time and attention: Preparing for the Nov. 8 general election.

Reporter Bri Cossavella contributed to this story.