GOP sues over bal­lot-ver­i­fi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Jes­sica Boehm and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez

As the na­tion awaits the re­sults of a very tight U.S. Se­nate race be­tween Repub­li­can Martha McSally and Demo­crat Kyrsten Sinema, Ari­zona Repub­li­can lead­ers were in court Thurs­day morn­ing chal­leng­ing which bal­lots some Ari­zona coun­ties are count­ing.

The Yuma, Navajo, Apache and Mari­copa County Repub­li­can par­ties filed a law­suit chal­leng­ing the way coun­ties ver­ify sig­na­tures on mail-in bal­lots that are dropped off at the polls on Elec­tion Day.

As of Thurs­day night, with an es­ti­mated 460,000 bal­lots still be­ing counted around the state, Sinema held a nar­row lead over McSally.

Mari­copa County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Mar­garet Ma­honey ruled that coun­ties should con­tinue do­ing what they’re do­ing, and set an­other hear­ing for 2 p.m. to­day.

If there is a mis­match be­tween the sig­na­ture on file and the sig­na­ture on an early bal­lot dropped off on Elec­tion Day, Mari­copa, Pima and Co­conino coun­ties are con­tin­u­ing to con­tact those vot­ers. In phone calls, county of­fi­cials al­low vot­ers to ver­ify that they did, in fact, sign the green en­ve­lope of

the bal­lot, as re­quired by law.

All three of those coun­ties are lean­ing heav­ily in sup­port of Sinema. The state’s other coun­ties — many of which McSally is win­ning — do not par­tic­i­pate in that prac­tice, called cur­ing, af­ter Elec­tion Day.

The law­suit asked the court to re­quire all of the coun­ties to im­ple­ment uni­form dead­lines for bal­lot re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. But it doesn’t specif­i­cally say whether that means stop­ping Mari­copa, Pima and Co­conino from count­ing those bal­lots or re­quir­ing the other coun­ties to be­gin cur­ing.

Mari­copa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said that there are still about 5,600 bal­lots that need to go through cur­ing in his county.

He’s in fa­vor of the ex­tended cur­ing pe­riod af­ter Elec­tion Day and sug­gested that the Repub­li­can law­suit was an at­tempt to in­val­i­date bal­lots that should count.

“I think ev­ery el­i­gi­ble United States ci­ti­zen who is cast­ing a valid bal­lot that is ver­i­fied should have that bal­lot count,” Fontes said.

At­tor­neys for the Democrats in court asked that the GOP at­tor­neys clar­ify what they’re seek­ing, but the judge didn’t al­low for an an­swer.

Be­fore the hear­ing, Brett John­son, at­tor­ney for the Repub­li­cans, said the law­suit seeks to re­quire all coun­ties to con­tact vot­ers af­ter Elec­tion Day so their bal­lots can be counted.

He said Democrats were mis­con­stru­ing the com­plaint’s in­tent. He said it is in­tended to en­sure all votes are treated equally. He said the GOP par­ties want con­sis­tency among all coun­ties when han­dling the mis­matched-sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion process.

“Our in­tent was never to sup­press,” John­son said. “Our in­tent was to en­sure all coun­ties to fol­low the law. Be­cause of what Mari­copa and Pima have done, it is es­sen­tial that all coun­ties get the same ben­e­fits.”

Demo­cratic at­tor­ney Marc Elias on Twit­ter said Democrats are ask­ing to in­ter­vene in the law­suit “to pro­tect those votes and en­sure a fair count.”

“We did not mis­con­strue any­thing,” he said via Twit­ter. “The GOP has been try­ing to dis­en­fran­chise vot­ers and pre­vent law­ful bal­lots from be­ing counted.”

“Bring it,” Fontes, a Demo­crat who over­sees the county’s elec­tion process, tweeted in re­sponse to the law­suit.

Sinema’s cam­paign man­ager An­drew Pi­att said in a state­ment that the pub­lic “must have faith that their votes are counted, and we are work­ing dili­gently to en­sure that count pro­ceeds in a fair, trans­par­ent, and timely man­ner that vot­ers can trust.”

Fele­cia Rotellini, chair­woman of the Ari­zona Demo­cratic Party, promised a fight if votes are dis­counted.

“The Repub­li­can party is do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to si­lence thou­sands of Ari­zo­nans who al­ready cast their bal­lots,” she said in a pre­pared state­ment. “That’s ab­so­lutely wrong, and the Ari­zona Demo­cratic Party is fully pre­pared to fight to en­sure that ev­ery last Ari­zo­nan has their vote counted.”

Andy Gor­don, an elec­tion-law at­tor­ney who rep­re­sents Democrats, said the law­suit is with­out merit. The ar­gu­ments con­tained in the law­suit were char­ac­ter­ized to him by a per­son fa­mil­iar with it, he said.

“It’s clas­sic Repub­li­can eleventh-hour stuff,” he said. “There are coun­ties all over the state who have been do­ing this for­ever ... and so now that we’ve got a dif­fer­ent regime down here in Mari­copa County, and we’ve got a re­ally, re­ally, re­ally tight Se­nate race. Sud­denly, the Repub­li­cans say, ‘You shouldn’t’ be do­ing this, we need to call it off.’”

Gor­don noted that ag­grieved par­ties are re­quired to act if is­sues arise: “You can’t sit on your hands un­til we see ‘OK, now it’s close, now we want to do some­thing about it.’”

Chris Her­ring, the Mari­copa County Repub­li­cans chair­man, said it was his un­der­stand­ing that sev­eral county recorders were “treat­ing bal­lots dif­fer­ently” when it came to ver­i­fy­ing sig­na­tures.

“We just want all 15 coun­ties treated the same way,” he said.

Ari­zona Repub­li­can Party Chair­man Jonathan Lines, on be­half of the Ari­zona Repub­li­can Party, ap­peared to lay the ground­work for a le­gal com­plaint Sun­day.

He sent all county recorders a let­ter call­ing into ques­tion the ex­tended cur­ing process and sep­a­rate emer­gency-vot­ing pro­cesses in which some coun­ties al­lowed vot­ers to cast bal­lots over the week­end and on Mon­day.

No law­suits have been filed over emer­gency vot­ing. This is the first year Mari­copa County has of­fered emer­gency vot­ing, but other coun­ties have of­fered the ex­tra polling hours for years.

In his let­ter, Lines ar­gued that state law does not al­low recorders to of­fer early vot­ing af­ter the Fri­day be­fore Elec­tion Day ex­cept in specif­i­cally de­fined emer­gen­cies. It asked the coun­ties to “iden­tify and seg­re­gate all bal­lots” cast at emer­gency vote cen­ters.

Fontes con­firmed Thurs­day that the ap­prox­i­mately 3,000 bal­lots cast at Mari­copa County emer­gency vote cen­ters “are go­ing through the nor­mal process at this time.”

“They will be counted,” he said. “I don’t have a court or­der or any­thing else telling me to do oth­er­wise.”

The Ari­zona Demo­cratic Party late Thurs­day filed a sep­a­rate law­suit against Fontes. Its le­gal chal­lenge also fo­cused on bal­lots that needed sig­na­ture ver­i­fi­ca­tion — but with a dif­fer­ent end goal in mind.

The law­suit al­leges Fontes did not promptly com­ply with the party’s pub­lic-records re­quest for a list of vot­ers whose bal­lots were not counted due to mis­matched sig­na­tures, out-of-precinct votes or be­cause poll work­ers were un­able to ver­ify a voter’s iden­tity or res­i­dency at the polls.

The party wants that in­for­ma­tion so it can “no­tify and as­sist el­i­gi­ble Ari­zo­nans in cur­ing any de­fects in their bal­lots be­fore the dead­line,” which is Nov. 14. The le­gal com­plaint men­tions the Sinema-McSally toss-up as the chief rea­son for the party’s con­cern.

The Demo­cratic Party is ask­ing a Mari­copa County Su­pe­rior Court judge to com­pel Fontes to im­me­di­ately re­lease the records. Mo­have and Pima coun­ties have al­ready pro­vided sim­i­lar records to the party, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint.

Fontes did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest to com­ment on the law­suit.

MARK HENLE/THE REPUB­LIC

Gary Ramirez pro­cesses bal­lots on Wed­nes­day at the Mari­copa County Tab­u­la­tion and Elec­tion Cen­ter in Phoenix. As of Thurs­day night, thou­sands of bal­lots re­mained to be tab­u­lated.

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