TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Democrat Kyrsten Sinema stretched her lead over Republican Martha McSally to just over 1 percent Friday in the undecided Arizona U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, and a court battle continued over whether to count thousands of ballots.
With more than 200,000 ballots uncounted, Sinema’s lead Friday evening was 20,203 votes out of 1.96 million, or 49.3 percent to McSally’s 48.3 percent, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
Most of the remaining ballots – early ballots either mailed late or dropped off on Election Day – are from Pima and Maricopa counties, home to Tucson and Phoenix respectively. In Maricopa County, about 266,000 ballots remained uncounted Friday, and in Pima County at least 15,000 remained, according to the county elections departments.
Neither campaign issued a statement Friday, and both candidates were quiet on social media.
Also Friday, the battle over ballots with mismatched signatures – about 5,600 in Maricopa County alone – continued before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney. The Republican Party in Maricopa, Yuma, Apache and Navajo counties sued all 15 Arizona county recorders Wednesday over early ballots with signatures that don’t match signatures on file with the state.
About three-fourths of Arizona ballots are early ballots, which can either be mailed up to a week before Election Day or dropped off at any early voting or Election Day polling place. Those are the ballots that remain to be counted.
When ballot signatures don’t match signatures on file, the ballots are set aside for verification. Most counties verify signatures only up until 7 p.m. on Election Day, but the state’s two most populous counties – Maricopa and Pima – continue to verify signatures after Election Day.
The Republicans want every county to operate on the same rules.
“This Court should require all County Recorders to enforce an equivalent deadline to ensure that Arizona voters across the state receive an equal opportunity to vote in the November 6, 2018 general election,” they said in the complaint.
Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a defendant in the lawsuit, told reporters Thursday that he would continue to follow the law as he sees it. On Friday, he issued a statement after Mahoney allowed the count to continue with a request for recorders to keep all envelopes containing the signatures.
“Keeping the ballots separate and uncounted is illegal, and I refuse to disenfranchise voters, but I still have the envelopes,” Fontes said in a statement.
The parties in the lawsuit agreed Friday to give voters until next Thursday to correct the signature issues, according to a news release from the Campaign Legal Center, who along with the ACLU negotiated the agreement on behalf of a coalition of Arizona nonprofits.
“Voters should not be disenfranchised by penmanship. We are pleased to announce that all Arizona voters are now guaranteed notice and an opportunity to confirm their signature before their ballot is rejected,” the coalition said in a joint statement.
President Donald Trump weighed in with an apparent reference to the lawsuit Friday afternoon.
“Just out – Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH. Electoral corruption – Call for a new election? We must protect our Democracy,” Trump tweeted.
This isn’t McSally’s first marathon election. Her first successful run for Congress in 2014, to replace Democrat Ron Barber, stretched out for a month before it was decided in a recount. McSally won that race by fewer than 200 votes out of 220,000.
Either winner will be Arizona’s 14th senator and first woman senator. The right-leaning state has had numerous women in the U.S. House of Representatives, and four of the state’s six governors since 1988 have been women, two Democrats and two Republicans.
McSally, 52, was the first woman to fly a U.S. combat mission and the first to command a fighter squadron. After retiring from the Air Force, she served two terms representing Congressional District 2, which stretches from Tucson’s urban core to New Mexico and south to Mexico.
Sinema, 42, grew up poor in Tucson, went to Arizona State University on a scholarship and then to law school and earned a Ph.D. from Arizona State University. She is a former criminal defense attorney and Green Party activist. Sinema represented Congressional District 9 in Phoenix’s urban center for three terms.
Green Party candidate Angela Green, who dropped out late in the race to endorse Sinema, continued to rack up votes. Her tally stood Friday at 46,820, or 2.3 percent. Green drew social media ire this week as a potential spoiler for Sinema, because many of her votes likely would have gone to Sinema had she dropped out before hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes had been cast.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office plans to update numbers daily at 5 p.m. Mountain time.