Why so many ballots go uncounted in Arizona

Tpolls closed in Arizona on Tuesday, but voters will likely have to wait a few more days before finding out whether their next governor will be Republican Kari Lake or Democrat Katie Hobbs. That’s because more than 570,000 ballots have yet to be counted, most of them in Maricopa County, where more than 60 percent of the state’s registered voters live.

Arizona officials edged a little closer to the final vote count Thursday night when Maricopa County released the final batch of approximately 78,000 mail-in ballots received Saturday, Sunday and Monday. These ballots, which were expected to be cast mostly by Democrats, slightly increased Hobbs’ lead over Lake; since thursday night it’s Hobbs forward by less than 27,000 votes.

But the race is hardly over. There are still about 17,000 in-person Election Day ballots, tens of thousands more mail-in ballots and a critical mass of 290,000 mail-in ballots delivered in person on Election Day.

It’s the latest batch that appears to have blindsided Maricopa County election officials, who received only roughly 170,000 such ballots in the last presidential election. Dealing with so many mail-in ballots on Election Day introduced an element of chaos to the count, as mail-in ballots typically take longer to process and tabulate. Early Thursday, campaigns expected Maricopa County to count a large portion of those 290,000 ballots by that evening. Later in the day, however, officials revealed that the count could be extended into next week.

Both campaigns and Arizona politicians on both sides of the aisle say those 290,000 ballots will likely determine the hotly contested race between Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, and Lake, a former local television news anchor.

Republican and Democratic sources expect those votes to tilt toward Lake, in large part because former President Donald Trump won most of the in-person write-offs two years ago. They also suspect that a significant percentage of those voters this time around are Republicans who remained on the absentee rolls after 2020 but who prefer to deliver their mail-in ballots in person on Election Day because they are not trusted to deliver them. mail or drop them boxes.

“We believe that the vast majority, the vast majority, of those mail-in ballots that were hand-delivered on Election Day will be approved,” Lake told Fox News on Thursday.

Republicans also hope they can close the gap in the U.S. Senate race, where Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly currently has a much larger lead over Republican Blake Masters. As of Thursday night, the former astronaut led by about 105,000 votes.

“You’re going to see the Democrats increase their lead Thursday night,” Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican political operative, told TIME. “And then when they go beyond those votes, going into those 290,000 ballots for Maricopa County that were dropped on Election Day, the Republicans will start to surge again.”

If that comes to fruition, it’s not yet clear how far Republicans will secure those votes. Trump’s largest margin in 2020 came from a similar batch of 138,000 mail-in ballots on Election Day, which he won by roughly 58%.

According to an analysis by Paul Benz, principal researcher at Arizona-based consultancy Highground, Lake needs roughly 51 percent or more of the remaining ballots to win, while the Masters will need at least 58 percent.

Coughlin expressed skepticism that the voters who turned out on Election Day would necessarily be a huge pool of MAGA supporters, the kind of voters most identified with the Trump-backed Lake, which argues that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election. despite numerous investigations, it found no evidence of significant fraud. “If you don’t trust the system,” Coughlin says. “Then why the hell do you just throw it in a box? That doesn’t make sense.” But the longtime strategist estimated that most of those voters would be Republicans — somewhere between 51 to 55 percent, he says — based on historical trends.

Arizona’s midterm elections got off to a rocky start Tuesday morning when roughly 20 percent of Maricopa County’s machine tabulators used to scan ballots at polling stations were down; by noon, county officials said they had diagnosed and fixed the problem.

Since then, county officials say they’ve been working shifts from 2 to 6 p.m. to count the ballots as quickly as possible. Maricopa County says they expect to cast 60,000 to 80,000 ballots each day until they complete the count, meaning the process could take another five or six days.

Yet there are other factors as well. The Hobbs campaign is working to identify and assist absentee voters who have received notice that their ballot will not be processed until the issue is resolved, known as the “healing process.” This is a routine feature of postal voting that usually applies to voters who have made the simple mistake of forgetting to include a signature on their ballot. The error is caught during the signature verification process to ensure the legitimacy of each vote.

According to Hobbs campaign sources, Arizona counties are reaching out to voters, and other allied liberal groups, such as Mission for Arizona, are offering to help them in the process. Arizona voters will have until Nov. 16 to fix any problems with their ballot so it can be counted, an election official confirmed to TIME.

Hobbs told reporters over the weekend that he expected the election to be in “countdown territory.” State law requires an automatic recount if the final margin is less than half a percent.

Military and overseas ballots can also be decisive if the race is close enough. An Arizona elections official tells TIME that ballots are not counted until all votes are finally tallied, a process that will take place by county on Nov. 28 and statewide on Dec. 5, meaning the tantalizingly close count could drag on the elections in another month.

Of course, both the Lake and Hobbs campaigns hope it doesn’t come to that. Lake has publicly said she expects 290,000 in-person exits to secure her governorship, and even Democrats believe she will win a majority of those votes. The biggest remaining question is by how much? And will she manage to win it all?

More election coverage from TIME

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