Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs and other Democrats got an unexpected boost from a batch of ballots counted in Maricopa County on Friday, widening their party’s lead in key races on a day that Republicans hoped would turn the tide in their favor.
The Associated Press and major TV networks including NBC called the U.S. Senate race for Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, whose lead over Republican candidate Blake Masters grew to 124,000 votes, or 5.7 percentage points, after the Friday update.
The AP and networks also called the Secretary of State race for Democrat Adrian Fontes over Republican candidate Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. Fontes led by 5.6 percentage points and 118,000 votes after the Friday update.
Hobbs earned 54% of the votes reported by Maricopa County on Friday, increasing her lead over Republican candidate Kari Lake to 31,000 votes, or 1.4 percentage points. And Democratic Attorney General candidate Kris Mayes finished the evening with a 19,000-vote, 0.8-percentage point lead over GOP nominee Abe Hamadeh, after taking 53.5% of the Friday vote dump.
The closest statewide race after the Friday update was for Superintendent of Public Instruction. In that contest, Democrat Kathy Hoffman clung to a 6,700-vote lead over GOP candidate Tom Horne – a margin of less than one half of a percentage point.
The Friday count from Maricopa County followed a 25,000-vote batch from Pima County that came in around 6:45 p.m. on Friday. Those votes favored statewide Democrats by two-to-one margins in most races, according to reporting by ABC15’s Garrett Archer. Other counties also submitted smaller vote batches throughout the day.
The Maricopa County Friday batch was widely expected to favor Republicans and it included some critical vote categories. Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates provided a rough breakdown of the ballots expected on Friday night at a news conference earlier in the day.
The batch contained up to 17,000 ballots dropped into “Box 3” on ballot tabulation machines, he said. Those ballots weren’t tabulated on Election Day due to problems with voting equipment, but they seemed likely to skew Republican since they were cast by voters who voted in person on Nov. 8 – a category that has favored GOP candidates so far.
Another several thousand (Gates said it was less than 10,000) ballots were early ballots. That’s a category that has favored Democrats so far.
But the majority of the Friday batch, Gates explained, was made up of early ballots that voters deposited in drop boxes on Election Day. That category, Election Day drop-offs, represents a large share of the remaining votes and will be key to either party winning close races. And it’s a category that has favored different parties in the past.
Kyrsten Sinema, the moderate Democratic Senator, won the category in her 2018 race. But former Republican President Donald Trump earned the majority of votes in that category in the 2020 presidential race in Arizona.
Before the Friday update, Maricopa County officials said there were approximately 290,000 Election Day drop-off ballots left to be counted. On Friday afternoon, before the update, the county was reporting about 354,000 ballots left to be counted. That means that more than half of the ballots left to count around the whole state were Election Day drop-offs from Maricopa County.
Throughout the day on Friday, GOP candidates talked confidently about an impending shift in momentum, saying they expected to earn significant majorities in coming batches including Friday’s drop from Maricopa County.
“We’re very confident that these counts are going to start going heavily our way and we will win this,” Lake said in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show earlier on Friday night. Masters, Hamadeh and other GOP candidates also projected optimism leading up to Friday night.
Paul Bentz, a veteran Arizona pollster, said GOP candidates in tight races, including Lake and Hamadeh, are looking vulnerable after Friday’s update, but their races aren’t over yet.
“The window for Republicans narrowed but it’s not impossible. There is too much variance in where the ballots could be coming from,” he said in a text message.
At the Friday afternoon news conference, Maricopa County officials said that election workers are currently counting votes from all around the county, but they didn’t provide granular information about whether any specific locations might be over or underrepresented in the Friday night vote batch.
The Friday update came in the midst of saber-rattling by Republican figures, including Lake, who aren’t happy about the pace of vote-counting in Maricopa County, which is home to about 60% of the state’s population. Lake recently accused the county of “slow walking” its results, allegedly to extend Democrat leads before reaching Republican-friendly batches of ballots.
The Republican National Committee and the Arizona GOP went further, demanding in a statement on Friday that ballots be counted 24 hours per day in Maricopa. Gates has previously said that county election workers are working 14 to 18-hour days.
“The RNC and the Republican Party of Arizona demand that around-the-clock shifts of ballot processing be pressed into service until all votes have been counted, accompanied by complete transparency and regular, accurate public updates,” Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney for the RNC, said in an emailed statement. “We will not hesitate to take legal action if necessary to protect Arizona voters’ right to have their ballots counted.”
Gates replied to that in an emailed statement on Friday night, calling the criticism “one more political stunt to try and distract us,” and noting that the county has averaged 12.5 days to post final election results in races since 2006.
“Changing processes or adding untrained personnel would only slow the counting at this point and we will not deny the voters of Maricopa County an accurate tabulation of their votes,” he added.