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Election Day starts weeks of political theater in AZ

Arizona’s 2018 election cycle didn’t end on Election Day.

Republican leads in close races on November 6 vanished as county recorders counted ballots in the days after, and Republicans turned to attacking Arizona’s electoral process, making unfounded claims of vote rigging.

Anybody who thought talk of the elections would simmer down after the polls closed on November 6 was quickly proven wrong as Democratic victories in federal, statewide and legislative races became apparent, shaking up an already contentious election cycle.

From left, Jonathan Lines, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, and attorney Kory Langhofer addressed reporters ahead of their 2 p.m. hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court for less than three minutes. Though they had called the press conference, they took just two questions regarding claims that "Democrats are stealing this election." (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

From left, Jonathan Lines, chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, and attorney Kory Langhofer addressed reporters ahead of their 2 p.m. hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court for less than three minutes. Though they had called the press conference, they took just two questions regarding claims that “Democrats are stealing this election.” (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

GOP cries foul

As Democrats turned the tide, enough to take the lead in key statewide and legislative races, along came calls of voter fraud and election-snafus from some Arizona Republicans and national GOP figures. Kory Langhofer, an attorney for the state Republican Party, said at a press conference November 9 that “the Democrats are stealing this election, and we’re not going to allow it.”

His comments followed a lawsuit filed by some county Republican parties against all 15 county recorders, arguing that every county must treat late-early ballots – mail-in ballots that are dropped off after the October 31 deadline to return them by mail – equally. That resulted in all counties agreeing to “cure” those late-early ballots up until 5 p.m. on November 14.

Prior to that settlement, only four counties proactively sought to verify signatures on late-early ballot envelopes past 7 p.m. on election night. While claiming that the settlement ensured rural voters ballots would be counted, Arizona GOP officials failed to address the fact that counties that weren’t curing ballots were operated by Republican county recorders, not Democrats.

On November 15, state GOP Chairman Jonathan Lines announced he hired a local attorney to conduct an “audit” of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, though the announcement doesn’t mention the fact that there’s nothing requiring the Recorder’s Office to comply. Republican Party officials will also launch a website to field complaints about the voting process as part of their outside investigation.

Trump tweets

President Donald Trump added to local claims of impropriety shaping Arizona’s elections, though he, too, did not provide any evidence of wrongdoing.

“Just out–in Arizona, SIGNATURES DON’T MATCH,” he tweeted on the same day Langhofer made his claims. “Electoral corruption–Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!”

He made similar unfounded accusations against election officials in Florida, tweeting on November 10, “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida! We are watching closely!”

There is some irony in Trump’s displeasure with the outcome of Arizona’s elections, in particular the U.S. Senate race.

Sen. Jeff Flake opened the door to that contest when he opted not to run for re-election. The president celebrated the decision, mocking Flake with whom he often clashed. Trump tweeted on the day Flake announced his decision that he had “zero chance of being elected” anyway, and has continued denigrating him on social media as weak and unelectable.

But Trump may now get more out of his public feud with Flake than he ever bargained for.

The president’s preferred successor for Flake’s seat, Republican Martha McSally, lost the election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. And while Sinema has said she’s willing to buck her party and work with Republicans, she’s not likely to win over Trump any more than Flake did.

Early ballots surge

A dour election night for Democrats turned joyful during the following weekend, as key statewide races flipped and commanding GOP leads were narrowed by a surge of mail-in ballots that took Maricopa County election officials a long time to count. Traditionally, mail-in ballots are all accounted for by election night. The first batch of results, released an hour after the polls close at 7 p.m., are not actually votes cast on Election Day, but all the early votes that were properly mailed in.

This year’s mail-in deadline fell on the Halloween holiday, perhaps providing an easy-to-remember date for voters to put their ballots in the mail. Numerous Democratic groups like the MiAZ Coalition spent the days before that Halloween deadline canvassing and encouraging voters to mail in their ballots in a timely fashion.

Those efforts perhaps contributed to the overwhelmingly positive results from ballots in Maricopa County that were mailed at the last possible moment. According to Garret Archer, the secretary of state’s data guru, those ballots split nearly 58 percent to 42 percent in favor of Sinema, helping the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate overtake her rival in the polls in a surge of votes reported on November 9.

In any case, high turnout swamped the staff at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office. Sophia Solis, a spokeswoman for the recorder, noted that Arizona law only allows mail-in ballots to be counted in the seven days before the election.

“We had really high participation, so it took more time to process those early ballots,” Solis wrote in an email.

AP misses the mark

Adding to the confusion on election night were multiple preemptive calls by The Associated Press. AP jumped the gun to call the races for secretary of state and two open Arizona Corporation Commission seats.

Republican Steve Gaynor was first declared the state’s next secretary of state on election night. News of his alleged win electrified him, and he took the stage at the Republican celebration to proclaim his victory.

“The AP is rarely wrong,” he said.

But Democrat Katie Hobbs would not concede as Gaynor’s lead dwindled in the hours and days that followed his victory lap. By November 11, she had taken a slim lead, and the AP deemed the race too close to call.

AP also projected wins for Republicans Justin Olson, the incumbent, and Rodney Glassman in the Corporation Commission race on election night. But less than 1 percentage point separated Olson in first place from former Commissioner Sandra Kennedy, a Democrat, who was in third.

Kennedy has since taken the lead in the race, knocking Glassman to third and leading AP to rescind its initial call on November 10. Glassman conceded the race on Nov. 14.

The news outlet learned a swift lesson, though. After the Corporation Commission retraction, AP reported it would not issue a new call until the election results were certified by state officials.

U.S. Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., smiles after her victory over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sinema won Arizona's open U.S. Senate seat in a race that was among the most closely watched in the nation, beating McSally in the battle to replace GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

U.S. Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., smiles after her victory over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sinema won Arizona’s open U.S. Senate seat in a race that was among the most closely watched in the nation, beating McSally in the battle to replace GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Sinema wins

After trailing in early vote totals on Election Day, Sinema came back to win the open U.S. Senate seat – becoming the first female U.S. senator from Arizona.

Her historic win was propelled by a Democratic surge that has landed at least two other Democrats into statewide elected office. Democrats previously held no statewide office since Janet Napolitano resigned as governor in 2009. Sinema is Arizona’s first Democratic U.S. senator since 1994.

Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini called this election the tipping point for Democrats.

This election was a culmination of an unprecedented Democratic field program – 4,000 volunteers knocked on 1 million doors – the excitement of possibly electing a Democratic senator and a wealth of unique Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, she said.

“We saw early on that everything, the polling, the fact that Hillary [Clinton] only lost by 4 percent in 2016, all eyes were on Arizona with respect to really elect Democrats up and down the ballot,” Rotellini said.

With Arizona U.S. Senate contests looming in 2020, 2022 and 2024, Democrats are invigorated.

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