PHOENIX, Ariz.—The polls closed in Arizona on Tuesday, but voters will likely have to wait several more days before they know whether their next governor will be Republican Kari Lake or Democrat Katie Hobbs. That’s because more than 570,000 ballots have yet to be counted, most of them in Maricopa County, where more than 60% of the state’s registered voters live.
Arizona officials inched marginally closer to a final vote count on Thursday, when Maricopa County released the latest batch of roughly 78,000 mail ballots that were received on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Those ballots, which were expected to be cast mostly by Democrats, extended Hobbs’ lead slightly over Lake; as of Thursday night, Hobbs was ahead by fewer than 27,000 votes.
But the race is hardly decided. Still outstanding are roughly 17,000 in-person Election Day votes, tens of thousands of more mail ballots, and a critical mass of 290,000 mail ballots that were delivered in person on Election Day.
It’s that last batch that appears to have blindsided Maricopa County election officials, who only received roughly 170,000 such ballots in the last presidential election. Handling so many mail ballots submitted on Election Day has thrown an element of chaos into the count, as mailed ballots typically take longer to process and tabulate. Early on Thursday, the campaigns had been expecting that Maricopa County would have tallied much of those 290,000 ballots by that evening. Later in the day, however, officials revealed the counting could stretch into next week.
Both campaigns as well as Arizona political insiders on both sides of the aisle say those 290,000 ballots will likely determine the hotly-contested race between Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, and Lake, a former local TV news anchor.
Republican and even some Democratic sources expect those votes to lean toward Lake, largely because former President Donald Trump won most of the in-person drop offs two years ago. They also suspect that a substantial percentage of those voters this time around are Republicans who stayed on the absentee rolls after 2020 but who prefer to deliver their mail ballots in person on Election Day because they don’t trust mailing them in or leaving them in drop boxes.
“We believe that the vast majority, a huge number of those mail-in ballots that were hand-delivered on Election Day will go our way,” Lake told Fox News on Thursday.
Republicans also hope that they can close the gap in the U.S. Senate race, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly currently holds a much larger margin over Republican Blake Masters. As of Thursday evening, the former astronaut was ahead by roughly 105,000 votes.
“You’ll see the Democrats extend their lead Thursday night,” Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican political operative, tells TIME. “And then when they get beyond those votes, getting into those 290,000 Maricopa County ballots that were dropped off on Election Day, Republicans will begin to surge again.”
Yet even if that pans out as expected, it’s not yet clear exactly how much of a Republican cushion those votes will provide. Trump’s largest margin in 2020 was from a similar batch of 138,000 Election Day mail drop-offs, which he won by roughly 58%.
According to an analysis from Paul Bentz, the chief researcher at the Arizona-based consultancy Highground, Lake needs roughly 51% or more of the remaining ballots to win, whereas Masters would need at least 58%.
Coughlin expressed skepticism that the Election Day drop-off voters would necessarily be an overwhelming array of MAGA diehards, the kind of voters most identified with the Trump-backed Lake, who has claimed that President Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election despite multiple investigations finding no evidence of substantial fraud. “If you don’t trust the system,” Coughlin says. “Then why the f—k are you just throwing it in a box? That doesn’t make sense.” But the longtime strategist did estimate that most of those voters would be Republicans—somewhere between 51 to 55 percent, he says—based on historical trends.
The midterm elections in Arizona got off to a tumultuous start on Tuesday morning when roughly 20% of Maricopa County’s machine tabulators used to scan ballots at polling places weren’t working; by midday, county officials said they had diagnosed and remedied the problem.
Since then, county officials say they have been working 14-to-18 hour shifts to count ballots as quickly as possible. Maricopa County says it expects to release 60,000 to 80,000 ballots each day until they conclude the count, meaning the process could take another five or six days.
There are other factors in play as well. The Hobbs campaign is working to identify and assist absentee voters who received a notice that their ballot wouldn’t be processed until a problem was addressed, what’s known as the “cures process.” It’s a routine feature of mail voting that generally applies to voters who made a simple mistake like forgetting to include a signature on their ballot. The error is caught during the signature verification process to ensure the legitimacy of every vote.
According to Hobbs campaign sources, Arizona counties are the ones making the outreach to voters, while other allied liberal groups, like Mission for Arizona, are offering to assist them in the process. Arizona voters will have until Nov. 16 to fix any problems with their ballot for it to be counted, an elections official confirms to TIME.
Over the weekend, Hobbs told reporters she anticipated the election would be in “recount territory.” State law requires an automatic recount if the final margin is less than one half of one percent.
Military and overseas ballots could also be decisive if the race is close enough. An Arizona elections official tells TIME those ballots aren’t counted until the final canvassing of all the votes, a process that will be conducted by counties on Nov. 28 and statewide on Dec. 5, which means a tantalizingly close count could extend the election into another month.
Of course, both the Lake and Hobbs campaigns are hoping it doesn’t come to that. Lake has been vocal that she expects the 290,000 in-person drop-offs to deliver her the governorship, and some Democrats believe she will win the majority of those votes.
If that’s true, the biggest question left is, by how much? And whether it will be enough for her to win the whole thing.
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