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Maricopa County elections officials continue to count ballots amid lawsuit

Volunteers examine ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Phoenix. There are several races too close to call in Arizona, especially the Senate race between Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema and Republican candidate Martha McSally. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes assured voters who cast a ballot for Tuesday’s election that elections officials are working to count their votes even as the county is involved in a lawsuit over the way mail-in ballots are counted.

Fontes, during a press conference on Thursday, said a judge has told the four county Republican parties — Maricopa, Apache, Navajo and Yuma counties — that filed the lawsuit that elections officials can keep counting the ballots.

“I think every valid vote 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.

“And today, an attempt to stop that process from continuing forward in Maricopa County, for the first time, where Maricopa County residents and voters and citizens now have that short cure period, they wanted to stop that from happening. And the judge told them no,” he added.

“We can continue counting those ballots and we can continue chasing down those voters and saying, ‘Hey, we had a little bit of an issue. You dropped your ballot off on Election Day, your signature didn’t match.’ We’re gonna go ahead, look for those voters, try to get those signatures verified and count those ballots.”

Judge Margaret R. Mahoney said it was too soon to require Maricopa and other counties to stop contacting voters to verify signatures on mail ballots. She also declined to order the counties to temporarily separate mail ballots that have been verified by that process after Election Day.

County registrars said that would cause chaos and slow the long vote-counting process even more.

Fontes said there are approximately 5,600 ballots in Maricopa County that need signature verification.

Republicans filed the lawsuit on Wednesday as election officials began to slowly tally more than 600,000 outstanding votes in the narrow U.S. Senate race between Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. They were separated by a small fraction of the 1.7 million tabulated votes.

About 75 percent of Arizona voters cast ballots by mail, but those ballots have to go through the laborious signature confirmation process, and only then can be opened and tabulated. If county recorders have issues verifying signatures they are allowed to ask voters to verify their identity.

The lawsuit alleged that the state’s 15 county recorders don’t follow a uniform standard for allowing voters to adjust problems with their mail-in ballots, and that two counties improperly allow those fixes after Election Day.

Lawyers for Maricopa County told a judge during a Thursday hearing that only a tiny percentage of the nearly 500,000 ballots they have yet to count could be affected by the lawsuit. A full hearing has been set for Friday afternoon.

At Thursday’s hearing, officials from the state’s 15 counties suggested the lawsuit only involves a fraction of votes. Colleen Connor, deputy Maricopa County attorney, said there were only 5,600 votes in Maricopa that would fall under the lawsuit and that the rates elsewhere also appeared low.

Fontes said part of the logjam is due to his office’s computer system dating from the 1980s, when Maricopa was far smaller and only a handful of its residents voted by mail.

He said the system only allows his office to tally about 75,000 votes a day.

Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman Chris Herring told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Bruce St. James and Pamela Hughes on Thursday that the county is not suing to stop the counting of ballots, but is suing for equal protection for all voters under the 14th Amendment.

“You can’t give one American one set of rules for voting and another person another set of rules in the same jurisdiction,” he said.

“That’s what is happening in Arizona.”

Herring said officials are arguing that one policy needs to be enacted throughout the state.

“If that, according to the lawyers, is equal protection, it would be more fair and more correct than different processes based on different counties,” he said.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Lines said in a tweet that the party wants all of the counties to “adhere to the same standards and timeline in fixing possible signature discrepancies on mail-in ballots.”

Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo said in a statement that he has “all of the confidence” in the recorder’s office “to count every qualified ballot.”

“As a former assistant elections director and public servant, I’ve spent my entire career working to make sure every vote counts,” he said. “Doing so isn’t always as fast as people would like and sometimes there are legal issues to sort out.”

Fontes was expected to release an update on the elections results at 5 p.m. on Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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