With Senate seat in the balance, GOP lawsuit claims inequality in vote count

PHOENIX – The battle over ballots in Arizona moved into the courtroom this week as the Republican Party in four counties filed a lawsuit against the state’s 15 county recorders and the secretary of state, setting up a showdown over voter rights vs. election fairness.

Thousands of votes still were being counted as Republican Party leaders in Maricopa, Apache, Yuma and Navajo counties filed the lawsuit Wednesday night, claiming unequal enforcement of the state’s Election Day deadline. A judge on Thursday denied a request for a restraining order to stop the counting of early ballots, but a Maricopa County Superior Court hearing has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday.

At stake: Arizona’s Senate seat, with votes just a hair’s breadth distance between Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. And, though not as prominent as the Senate, the race for the state’s top state education leader, the superintendent of public instruction, also remains too close to call.

The final count is expected to take several days. By midweek, more than 600,000 votes, mostly from Maricopa County, remained uncounted.

Republican leaders said they filed suit because various county recorder’s offices verify votes differently, with four counties allowing calls to verify voters’ signatures on early ballots after Election Day.

“A foundational principle of American democracy and our justice system is that all votes are treated equally,” Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines said. “This equal protection under the law is enshrined in our Constitution. It is not fair nor just that voters in one county are treated differently under the law from other voters in Arizona. This suit seeks immediate redress of any inequality between ballots cast across Arizona. We stand behind our local county parties demand for equal treatment.”

State Democratic Party leaders on Thursday called it a legal maneuver to “silence thousands of Arizonans who already cast their ballots.”

The court challenge centers on when signature verification is conducted. Voters who send in
mail-in ballots have to sign the back of the envelope and date it for it to be counted.

“The 2014 manual authorizes county recorders to make an effort to contact voters when there’s a question about the signature,” attorney Jim Barton said, “and it says they can do it as long as time permits, and so my interpretation is that the county recorder can decide what does that mean ‘if time permits.’ By statute, you have five days if you don’t have the right ID.”

The lawsuit says Maricopa County, which includes most of metro Phoenix, and Pima County, which includes Tucson, are giving their voters an opportunity that’s unavailable to people who don’t live in the state’s two largest counties.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, responded to the suit with a two-word tweet: Bring it.

“Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t want me to be able to help those voters cure any mismatched signatures,” Fontes said.

The lawsuit comes after one of the largest turnouts in history for a midterm election, with at least 1.7 million people voting in Arizona.

Garrett Archer, a senior analyst with the Secretary of State’s Office, said earlier in the week that the long wait for election results stems from the volume of early voters who dropped off those ballots in-person from Nov. 2 through Nov. 6.

“Ballots that come in on Election Day that are from early balloters have to go through the same process that the early ballots had gone through for the entire 28 days of the early ballot process,” Archer said, speaking before the lawsuit was filed.

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