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Final Arizona tally may take days, as usual

August 5, 2020 GMT
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Ballots are boxed up after votes were counted at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office for the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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Ballots are boxed up after votes were counted at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office for the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Politicians in tight races should not expect final results from Arizona’s primary election for at least a few days, a regular occurrence in the state even though it sees the vast majority of voters cast ballots early by mail.

That’s because many of those voting by mail cling to the habit of dropping off their ballots at the polls on Election Day, even though they could have dropped them into a mailbox weeks before the election.

Such ballots take time to count, using a labor-intensive procedure to verify signatures on envelopes and then opening them to process the actual ballot.

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Maricopa County had about 76,000 mail ballots dropped off on Election Day, and also needed to process about 20,000 mail ballots it received Monday, county Elections Department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson said Wednesday. Pima County has about 55,000 ballots to process, Elections Director Brad Nelson said.

The good news: Maricopa County had received more than 700,000 early ballots before Monday, and results from them were posted about an hour after the polls closed Tuesday at 7 p.m.

It usually takes at least three days and sometimes more than a week to process what elections officials call “late-earlies,” an agonizing wait for candidates in tight races.

One is Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff who lost his 2016 reelection bid and is trying to make a comeback in the Republican primary. He was fewer than 600 votes behind his former chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, at midday Wednesday, and is waiting for those late-earlies and a few thousand other votes to be counted to learn if he advances to November.

“I never had one like this. Usually I knew pretty quick when the totals came in, the early voting,” the 88-year-old former sheriff said. “In all my races I never got caught up in this type of situation.

“But I’m not going to jump off a roof — this is my seventh, eighth campaign. I’m a little discouraged. I wanted to win,” Arpaio said.

Some state legislative races remained too close to call Wednesday, including a top tier race in a north Phoenix district that pitted a social conservative Republican, Nancy Barto, against a more moderate Republican, Heather Carter. Carter was trailing.

The waiting for the Barto-Carter race began on election night, when Maricopa County posted none of the roughly 51,000 in-person Election Day votes until well after 11 p.m., fully four hours after polls closed. Even after processing Election Day ballots for a few hours, there were still more than 3,100 to be counted countywide when tallies were stopped at 2 a.m.

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Gilbertson attributed the delay in tallying in-person votes to the county moving to vote centers, a decision driven in large part by the pandemic and attempts to reduce crowds that can spread the coronavirus.

Officials set up 99 large polling places that replaced several hundred smaller voting precincts. Disassembling those large centers isn’t quick, she said, and after that is done the election machines and other equipment had to be driven to one of 10 collection spots before being transferred to downtown Phoenix for vote counting.

That delayed getting Election Day votes to the public. It was well after midnight before The Associated Press was able to declare victors in several close races.

“It’s harder because of the process,” Gilbertson said. “This is something that can happen and has happened in past elections.”

State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita has pushed for years for changes to the early voting system so results don’t take days. She’s proposed legislation that would ban dropping off mail-in ballots at the polls, only to have it rejected because of concerns over disenfranchising voters, which she said is not her goal at all.

She has backed legislation that allows counties to count early ballots as soon as two weeks before Election Day so they’re ready for release, and also floated an idea that ballots dropped off at a polling place would be verified and tabulated there, rather than days later.

“It’s 2020 — there’ no reason we shouldn’t have more expedited results,” said Ugenti-Rita, a Republican who easily won her primary race Tuesday. “There are things you could do to have results earlier — I think the public would just be naturally very appreciative of that.”

Voters turned out in record numbers despite a dearth of top-tier races. Once all the ballots are counted, turnout will likely be around 35% of registered voters, topping the prior record of over 33.2% set in 2018.

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