TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has taken a slim lead over Republican Martha McSally — 9,610 votes out of 1.85 million ballots cast in Arizona’s Senate race — and the Republican Party sued the secretary of state to try to stop verification of ballots.
As the ballot counting stretched into Friday, with hundreds of thousands of early ballots left to count, Sinema’s lead was half a percentage point, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
The Associated Press reported early Friday that Sinema led by 49.1 percent to 48.6 percent: 932,870 votes to 923,260. The Arizona Republic reported Thursday afternoon that about 460,000 ballots remained to be counted.
Though McSally appeared to lead on Election Day, Sinema overtook her after 127,000 ballots were counted in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. A large share of the yet-to-be-verified ballots come from Maricopa and Pima County — home to Tucson — which leans Democratic. Ballot verification also continued Thursday in Coconino County, home to Flagstaff and the University of Northern Arizona, which also trends Democratic.
That no doubt prompted the Republican Party in four counties — Maricopa, Navajo, Apache and Yuma — to sue Secretary of State Michele Reagan, a Republican, and the recorders of all 15 Arizona counties to prevent verification of some early ballots.
In the language of the Wednesday lawsuit in Maricopa County Court: “This Court should require all County Records 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.”
(In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott filed a similar lawsuit against the recorders of Broward and Palm Beach counties — both of which lean Democratic — accusing them of trying “to steal this election” for U.S. Senate, through “rampant fraud,” as they continued to count ballots. Scott led incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by 15,175 votes Thursday — a margin small enough it’s likely to trigger an automatic recount.
(The lawsuits in both states bring back memories of the 2000 presidential election, when the U.S. Supreme Court effectively elected George W. Bush over Al Gore, by stopping recounts and verification of ballots.)
In Arizona, Pima and Maricopa counties allow voters whose signatures do not match signatures on file to verify their identities after Election Day. Other counties do not allow post-election day verification. In Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, about 5,600 ballots so far require signature verification, said County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a defendant in the lawsuit.
Fontes said he will keep counting, at a news conference after a court hearing Thursday.
“The judge just told them no,” Fontes said. “We can continue to count those ballots.”
After first calling for a halt to verifying those ballots, the plaintiffs on Thursday asked Judge Margaret Mahoney to allow the count through Saturday. Another hearing was scheduled for Friday morning.
Although the secretary of state’s website shows 99+ percent of Maricopa County precincts reporting and 100 percent for other counties, that number does not include early ballots. In Arizona, about three-fourths of ballots are either mailed or dropped off at polling places on Election Day. Those early ballots are verified and processed separately from in-person votes, and the numbers are difficult to estimate.
Neither campaign issued a statement after the vote count was announced Thursday, and both candidates were silent on Twitter.
Slow elections are nothing new in Arizona, where state law allows counties to verify ballots after elections and close races spark automatic recounts. McSally faced a similar situation in her first election to the House in 2014.
That race, against incumbent U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Democrat, took more than a month to decide, when a state-mandated recount was sparked by her win of fewer than 200 votes out of 220,000. McSally won by 167 votes to finally beat Barber after two failed attempts: a primary loss in a special election to replace U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat whose career ended when she was shot at a constituent event in 2011, and a general election loss to Barber.
No matter who wins, Arizona will have its first woman senator.
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.
The Secretary of State’s Office was expected to release more results Friday at 5 p.m. Mountain Time.
Green Party candidate Angela Green, who dropped out of the race late to endorse Sinema, continued to accumulate votes, with 44,000, or 2.3 percent.