Why it’s taking so long for Arizona to count its Senate votes

Arizona’s hotly contested Senate race between Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is still too close to call, and it could stay that way until as late as next week, according to the Associated Press.

This delay is, in large part, due to the state’s sluggish ballot counting process, something residents know all too well. In the past, it’s taken up to 10 days to get election results for various state and local races, and this year’s high voter turnout isn’t expected to help expedite matters much. The vote count is ongoing, county officials say, with an expected update at 5 pm Mountain time (7 pm Eastern) on Thursday.

The main reason for this lag is that about 75 percent of Arizonans vote via mail-in ballots, which need to be received by Election Day. (Unlike some other states, Arizona requires voters to have ballots physically in by this deadline and doesn’t count ones that are simply postmarked by that time.)

Once these votes are received, however, they undergo a rigorous — and famously slow — verification process.

The focus on mail-in ballots has only heightened, given how close the Senate race currently is. Sinema and McSally were trading leads throughout Election Day, and as of the latest count, McSally is up by a razor-thin 17,000-vote margin. To complicate things even further, Green Party candidate Angela Green also picked up more than 38,000 votes as of Wednesday despite dropping out of the race and endorsing Sinema earlier this week.

If Sinema succeeds, this could be the first year that Arizona — which was a Republican stronghold but is becoming less so — elects a Democrat to the Senate in roughly three decades. Her win could be a crucial Democratic pickup and keep the Republican majority in the Senate narrow. As things stand, Republicans have been hanging on to their 51-seat advantage, and if McSally wins, they’re on track to expand it.

What happens with the outstanding mail-in ballots could really change everything.

Arizona is among the states that are heavily dependent on mail-in ballots, which enable residents to vote early or physically drop off their ballots at designated locations on Election Day. As Vox’s David Roberts has written, mail-in ballots are often way more convenient for voters who can make their decisions at home and simply send them in once they’re done. In a number of places where mail-in ballots are used, studies have found that they streamline the experience so much that they improve voter turnout.

Currently, 27 states use mail-in ballots to some capacity, and Washington, Colorado, and Oregon use them for all elections, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The downside of mail-in ballots is that they can take much longer to count compared to votes that are submitted the more traditional way on Election Day.

This issue is exactly what’s playing out in Arizona, and one that California has often had to deal with as well. As of Wednesday, there were still 600,000 mail-in ballots — of more than 2 million total ballots cast — that Arizona officials were waiting to process in places like Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs.

Part of the reason processing mail-in ballots takes so long is that these votes need to be verified. One way officials do this is by making sure the signatures on the ballots match up with respective residents’ signatures on file. If they don’t, officials reach back out to voters to confirm the ballots’ authenticity.

Because a fraction of mail-in ballots don’t arrive until very close to Election Day, this verification process can take place afterward and make tabulating the votes much, much slower.

This process, in addition to delaying when results are announced, is now the focus of a Republican lawsuit. The Republican parties of four Arizona counties have filed a suit against the Arizona secretary of state and all county recorders over how mail-in votes are verified, the Hill reports.

The GOP plaintiffs argue that various counties are verifying votes differently and note that the process should be more consistent. Some counties call voters after Election Day to verify their ballots, while others don’t, they say. They’re asking for an injunction so that all ballots verified after Election Day can be omitted from any final vote tally — and they’re specifically calling out multiple counties that are seen as Sinema strongholds.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes told the Arizona Republic that this kind of post-Election Day timing on verification is commonplace and not quite the anomaly that Republicans have framed it to be. It’s not apparent how many votes would be withheld if a judge sides with the Republicans, but it’s likely to affect places that have been more left-leaning in the past.

As such, Democrats have said this suit is a last-ditch attempt at voter suppression, and one that goes out of its way to target places that could have backed Sinema. “The Republican party is doing everything it can to silence thousands of Arizonans who already cast their ballots,” Arizona Democratic Party Chair Felecia Rotellini told the Hill.

Members of the Sinema camp have reportedly expressed confidence about the possible outcome of the election as results continue to roll in, according to Republican political consultant Liz Mair.

McSally’s campaign also appeared to be optimistic about their chances early Wednesday morning.

Democrats have long eyed Arizona as a possible Senate pickup. Given the number of votes that sill need to be counted, it could be a few more days before we know whether they’ve managed to pull it off.

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