PHOENIX — Arizona Republicans who had alleged the state's two biggest counties were illegally counting some ballots changed course Friday and agreed to settle their lawsuit if rural voters also get an extra chance to fix problems with ballots cast in the state's tight U.S. Senate race.
The settlement was technically between Republicans and the state's county recorders, but Democrats and civil rights groups who had jumped into the fray agreed to it as it was announced in a Phoenix courtroom Friday afternoon. Arizona's 15 counties now have until Nov. 14 to address the issue, which state Elections Director Eric Spencer said likely affects less than 10,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast statewide.
The Republican lawsuit said the state's county recorders don't follow a uniform standard for allowing voters to address problems with the signatures on their mail-in ballots, and that Maricopa and Pima counties improperly allow the fixes for up to five days after Election Day.
The lawsuit settlement in a courtroom packed with more than a dozen lawyers and a host of reporters came a day after Democrat Kyrsten Sinema jumped into a slight lead over Republican Martha McSally in the midst of the slow vote count. On Friday night, she padded her lead to about 1 percentage point of the 2 million ballots tallied. More than 350,000 remain accounted.
Even as the Republican attorneys pursued a deal that would let conservative-leaning counties match signatures like the two urban ones, President Donald Trump seemed to attack the way Maricopa and Pima operated on twitter. "In Arizona, SIGNATURES DON'T MATCH," Trump tweeted. "Electoral corruption - Call for a new Election?"
Four local Republican parties filed the lawsuit Wednesday night challenging the two large counties' practice of reaching out to voters after Election Day. If the signature on the voter registration doesn't match that on the sealed envelope, both Maricopa and Pima County allow voters to help them fix, or "cure" it, up to five days after Election Day.
Many other counties only allow voters to cure until polls close on Election Day. Now, all will follow the standard set by Maricopa, Pima and two other rural counties that allow for post-Election Day cures.
A Maricopa County official said Thursday that only about 5,600 ballots were affected in her county and the rate is similar in the 14 smaller counties. Spencer said that means less than 10,000 in all.
The bottom line for Republicans was to ensure that counties with high GOP registration had a change to balance those with high or close Democratic support.
"This is a really great day for us," state GOP attorney Kory Langhofer said. "The rural counties who were not going to be counting Republican votes on the same terms as the Democratic counties, they got caught with their pants down. When they've got to show up in court and explain to the judge what they're doing they gave us everything we were asking for."
Grant Woods, a former Republican state attorney general who now backs Sinema, criticized the Republicans for "monkeying with the process" now that their candidate is behind in the vote.
"If they lose the race they should just take their lumps and field a better candidate next time,' he said.
The political overtones of the lawsuit were unmistakable. On Thursday, Sinema jumped into a minuscule lead of about 9,000 out of 1.9 million votes counted after trailing since Tuesday. Her lead came from the two counties singled out by Republicans in their lawsuit, Maricopa and Pima Counties.
On Friday, Republicans escalated their attacks on Democrats, claiming they were trying to disenfranchise rural voters - even though Democrats had little do with how the rural counties chose to count ballots. Those counties are predominantly run by Republicans. Democrats, in turn, said the GOP was trying to nullify cast ballots.
The race remained too close to call Friday with more than 400,000 ballots still uncounted. Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said counting may continue until Nov. 15. "We know there's urgency out there, but we want to get it right, not quick," he said.
Arizona is notoriously slow at tallying ballots even though about 75 percent of votes are cast by mail. Each of those ballots must go through a laborious verification process.