Coun­ties reach deal on ver­i­fy­ing bal­lots

Of­fices will ‘cure’ through Wed­nes­day; GOP law­suit averted

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

Fri­day be­gan with a so­cial me­dia uproar over al­le­ga­tions of Ari­zona voter fraud, as the na­tion awaited the re­sults of the state’s too-close-to-call U.S. Se­nate race and Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can groups pre­pared to take lo­cal elec­tions of­fi­cials to court.

Their law­suit, in re­al­ity, con­tained no al­le­ga­tions of voter fraud. The le­gal chal­lenge cen­tered on a pro­ce­dural lack of con­sis­tency in the time frame coun­ties al­low vot­ers to cor­rect sig­na­ture is­sues on mail-in bal­lots.

About 20 min­utes be­fore the hear­ing, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can Party held a news con­fer­ence and con­fi­dently told re­porters, “The Democrats are steal­ing the elec­tion and we’re not go­ing to al­low it.”

In the end, the coun­ties whose elec­tion prac­tices they ended up chang­ing were largely run by Repub­li­cans.

The events in­side the court­room were far less dra­matic. Min­utes after the news con­fer­ence and be­fore the hear­ing, all of the coun­ties and the Re­pub­li­can groups

“I think ev­ery el­i­gi­ble United States cit­i­zen who is cast­ing a valid bal­lot that is ver­i­fied should have that bal­lot count.” Adrian Fontes Mari­copa County recorder

had come to an agree­ment. The judge ap­proved it with lit­tle fan­fare. Per the set­tle­ment, all of Ari­zona’s coun­ties will al­low vot­ers to ver­ify the sig­na­tures on their bal­lots through 5 p.m. Wed­nes­day.

The le­gal bat­tle was likely lit­tle more than a messy pit stop on the long route left to de­ter­mine the next U.S. sen­a­tor from Ari­zona.

An at­tor­ney for the state Re­pub­li­can Party said after the hear­ing that the set­tle­ment was a win for Re­pub­li­can se­nate can­di­date Martha McSally, but it’s not clear if it’s true. McSally was trail­ing Demo­crat Kyrsten Sinema by about 20,000 votes as of Fri­day night.

The law­suit cen­tered on the length of time that vot­ers have to rec­tify sig­na­ture mis­matches on the green en­velopes that con­tain mail-in bal­lots.

When coun­ties re­ceive mail-in bal­lots, elec­tion work­ers at­tempt to check the sig­na­ture against the voter’s sig­na­ture on record. If the work­ers can­not ver­ify the sig­na­ture, the county at­tempts to con­tact vot­ers to al­low them to con­firm their bal­lot. All of Ari­zona’s 15 coun­ties take part in this process be­fore Elec­tion Day, but only a hand­ful of them al­low vot­ers to con­tinue “cur­ing” their bal­lots after Elec­tion Day.

That in­con­sis­tency is what the Re­pub­li­can Party wanted a judge to rec­tify.

Mari­copa and Co­conino coun­ties, both of which have Demo­cratic county recorders run­ning their elec­tions, had planned to al­low vot­ers to cure their bal­lots through Nov. 14. Apache and Pi­nal coun­ties had planned to stop cur­ing Fri­day, and Pima County had planned to stop Satur­day.

The other coun­ties stopped cur­ing bal­lots at 7 p.m. on Elec­tion Day.

“Un­der the cur­rent var­ied prac­tices of the de­fen­dant county recorders, the vote of cit­i­zens in ru­ral coun­ties is di­luted be­cause their recorders cut off the abil­ity to cure early bal­lot sig­na­ture is­sues, while vot­ers in other coun­ties such as Pima and Mari­copa have a far greater like­li­hood of hav­ing their votes counted be­cause their recorders con­tinue to al­low early bal­lots to be cured well past Elec­tion Day,” the Re­pub­li­can groups ar­gued in court records.

McSally has per­formed strong­est in ru­ral coun­ties, while Sinema is the front-run­ner in Mari­copa and Pima coun­ties, where vote cur­ing is per­mit­ted for a longer pe­riod of time.

The Re­pub­li­can groups have ar­gued that Mari­copa, Pima, Co­conino, Pi­nal and Apache coun­ties should never have al­lowed vote cur­ing after Elec­tion Day, but now that they have, the court should re­quire all coun­ties to per­mit vot­ers to cure early bal­lots un­til 5 p.m. Wed­nes­day. That was ul­ti­mately what the coun­ties agreed to do.

The num­ber of bal­lots with sig­na­ture is­sues in each county is un­clear. Mari­copa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said his of­fice had around 5,600 as of Thurs­day af­ter­noon. Navajo County has about 25, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The set­tle­ment ap­plies only to this elec­tion. The rules could change for fu­ture elec­tions.

The rhetoric about the law­suit by both Repub­li­cans and Democrats was ac­tu­ally the same: “Count all votes.”

When the law­suit was ini­tially filed Wed­nes­day, it was un­clear whether the Repub­li­cans were seek­ing to stop Mari­copa and Pima coun­ties from cur­ing bal­lots, or if they were look­ing to ex­tend the prac­tice to all coun­ties. Democrats as­sumed it was the for­mer, which spurred crit­i­cism and claims of Re­pub­li­can voter sup­pres­sion.

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

By Thurs­day, Repub­li­cans said they were look­ing to ex­pand the cur­ing time frame for all coun­ties, be­cause they, too, wanted all bal­lots to count — in­clud­ing those in ru­ral coun­ties where recorders had stopped cur­ing bal­lots.

At the news con­fer­ence be­fore the court hear­ing, McSally sup­port­ers held signs that read, “Ru­ral Votes Mat­ter” and “Count Ev­ery Vote.”

Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Brnovich in­ter­vened in the law­suit. In a tweet, he said, “The same rules should ap­ply for all vot­ers, re­gard­less of where you live in AZ.”

In a tweet, state Elec­tions Di­rec­tor Eric Spencer with the Re­pub­li­can-led Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice said the is­sue was “hotly de­bated” among county recorders in prepa­ra­tion for the elec­tion and no con­sen­sus could be reached.

He said the Sec­re­tary of State’s Of­fice de­cided at the time not to force a de­ci­sion “amidst strongly con­flict­ing views.”

After the hear­ing, Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can Party at­tor­ney Kory Langhofer sug­gested more chal­lenges could be on the way.

“We’re re­ally con­cerned about the way bal­lots are be­ing counted, par­tic­u­larly in Mari­copa County,” he said.

MARK HENLE/THE REPUB­LIC

Judge Mar­garet Ma­honey lis­tens Fri­day in Mari­copa County Su­pe­rior Court in Phoenix. Ma­honey signed off on an agree­ment that al­lows all of Ari­zona’s coun­ties to ver­ify bal­lot sig­na­tures through Wed­nes­day.

MARK HENLE/THE REPUB­LIC

Ari­zona Re­pub­li­can Party at­tor­neys Brett John­son (cen­ter) and Kory Langhofer con­fer dur­ing Thurs­day’s hear­ing in Mari­copa County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Mar­garet Ma­honey’s court­room in Phoenix. The judge ap­proved an agree­ment that set­tled a GOP law­suit.

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