Maricopa County expects to finish counting ballots sooner than normal




early ballot
Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

It’s not apparent based on the throngs of angry Trump-supporting protesters spouting unfounded conspiracies, but Maricopa County isn’t taking any longer than usual to count ballots — and actually expects to finish more quickly than in 2018.

Two years ago, post-election counting took 13 days: Maricopa County announced on Nov. 19 that it had completed its vote count for the general election, which was on Nov. 6. This year, the county is likely to finish its count on Nov. 10 or 11 — seven or eight days after the Nov. 3 election — according to Megan Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Elections Department.

As of Friday morning, the county had about 140,000 early ballots left to count, mostly from people who dropped off their ballots at voting centers on election. On top of that, there are nearly 6,000 early ballots that will be counted if election officials can verify the signatures, and another 16,000 provisional ballots that must be verified before the votes can be counted.

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Counting will continue all day Friday, and more results will be released at 7 p.m., followed by more counting Saturday. Gilbertson said she expects the majority of the remaining ballots to be counted by Saturday.

“I would say this is fast. This is really fast for Maricopa County,” Gilbertson said.

When election officials receive any early ballot, they first must verify the signature on the envelope. If the signature matches the one on file for that voter, the ballot and envelope are separated, and the ballots are counted by machines. If the machines can’t read them, images of those ballots are sent to an adjudication board that tries to determine the voter’s intent.

Helen Purcell, who served as Maricopa County recorder from 1989-2017, said the process isn’t easy and needs to be precise.

“I’d rather do it right than do it hurried. And I think they still feel that way,” she said.

Despite the fact that vote counting is happening faster than in the past, the Maricopa County Elections Department has been besieged by angry protesters demanding that election workers “count every vote,” which they’d already been doing. Republican elected officials such as Congressman Paul Gosar and Rep. Kelly Townsend joined the fray, and alt-right personalities like Mike Cernovich and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones even came to Phoenix to take part.

Purcell said people often don’t understand what goes into counting ballots.

“People have to understand — and I know they don’t. Everybody cries for it to be over now,” Purcell said.

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There are several reasons the count is moving more swiftly than usual, Gilbertson said. Chief among them are that Maricopa County acquired new vote-counting machines this year that make it easier to tabulate ballots, and that the legislature passed a law in 2019 allowing county election officials to begin counting early ballots — which represent the vast majority of all votes cast in Arizona — two weeks before Election Day, rather than one week, as the law previously allowed.

By law, the county won’t be able to finalize its count until at least Tuesday due to another 2019 state law that created a five-day period for election officials to “cure” ballots with deficient signatures. That means if the signature on the ballot doesn’t appear to match the one on file, election workers will reach out to the voter to determine if they are the ones who signed the envelope.

Voters have until Nov. 10 to confirm that they signed their ballots in those situations. The same deadline applies to verifying provisional ballots, such as for voters who didn’t have proper identification at the polls and must present their IDs to election officials before their votes can be counted.

The quicker pace of vote counting comes despite a surge in voting this year. In 2018, there were fewer than 1.5 million voters cast ballots in Maricopa County. Two years before that, in the last presidential election, that number was 1.6 million. This year, Gilbertson said they’ll exceed 2 million votes cast in Maricopa County.