Arizona GOP sues to limit mail-in ballots in US Senate race

A supporter crosses her fingers as she talks with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, at a get-out-the-vote event at the Arizona Education Association headquarters in Phoenix, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Sinema is facing Republican Martha McSally in the race to replace Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring. (AP Photo/Bob Christie)

PHOENIX (AP) — Republicans filed a lawsuit Wednesday night to challenge the way some Arizona counties count mail-in ballots as election officials began to slowly tally more than 600,000 outstanding votes in the narrow U.S. Senate race -- a task that could take days.

Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema were separated by a small fraction of the 1.7 million tabulated votes.

About 75 percent of Arizona voters cast ballots by mail, but those ballots have to go through the laborious signature confirmation process, and only then can be opened and tabulated. If county recorders have issues verifying signatures they are allowed to ask voters to verify their identity.

The suit filed Wednesday by four county Republican parties alleges that the state's 15 county recorders don't follow a uniform standard for allowing voters to adjust problems with their mail-in ballots, and that two counties improperly allow those fixes after Election Day.

The GOP complained about the issue before Election Day and threatened to sue. Democrats alleged it was attempted voter suppression and that recorders have followed the same procedures for years with no issues. Republicans said it was about following the law and having a timely ballot count.

Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally, right, speaks with Caleb Klein and his sister, Grace Klein, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at Chase's diner in Chandler, Ariz. McSally and Democratic challenger Kirsten Sinema are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The sluggish count is a perennial issue for Arizona, but has rarely received such a high level of attention because the GOP-leaning state generally has had few nationally-watched nail-biting contests.

The lawsuit alleges that signature verification must stop when polls close, and seeks an injunction to stop the counting of such ballots that have been verified after then. It's unclear how many of these votes still remain outstanding, but the suit singles out the state's two biggest urban counties, the center of support for Sinema. It says the two counties allow voters to help clear up signature problems up to five days after the election.

Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally, speaks with voters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at Chase's diner in Chandler, Ariz. McSally and Democratic challenger Kirsten Sinema are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Democrats believe the uncounted urban ballots dropped off shortly before Election Day favors Sinema.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard Friday, after the next release late Thursday of tallied ballots.

U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks to supporters at the Barton Barr Central Library, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Phoenix. Sinema and Republican challenger Martha McSally are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January.(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

It's one window into the complexities of mail ballots and the so-called "late earlies" that arrive just before Election Day and regularly gum up the state's vote counting system.

This election featured heavy statewide turnout of about 60 percent, more in line with a presidential election than a midterm — part of the reason county registrars were overloaded with uncounted ballots.

U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks with the media at the Barton Barr Central Library, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Phoenix. Sinema and Republican challenger Martha McSally are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January.(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

One candidate familiar with the long wait is McSally. It took The Associated Press 12 days to name her as the loser of her first congressional race in 2012 because the margin was so narrow and vote counting was slow. McSally's second and successful bid for the seat ended with a recount in December of 2014, more than one month after the election.

McSally tweeted early Wednesday that she was going "to bed with a lead of over 14,000 votes."

U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., takes selfies with supporters at the Barton Barr Central Library, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 in Phoenix. Sinema and republican challenger Martha McSally are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January.(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

She added: "We're confident tomorrow will bring more good news."

Sinema tweeted that the "race is about you and we're going to make sure your vote is counted. There are a lot of outstanding ballots — especially those mailed-in — and a lot of reasons to feel good!"

Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally, speaks with voters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at Chase's diner in Chandler, Ariz. McSally and Democratic challenger Kirsten Sinema are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The cliffhanger Senate race comes in what's otherwise shaping up to be another banner Arizona year for Republicans. The GOP has won every statewide race in Arizona over the past decade, and Democrats were hoping Sinema could break that streak.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was easily re-elected over a challenge from Democrat David Garcia, a professor. The GOP notched victories in the attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state races as well.

Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally speaks with voters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at Chase's diner in Chandler, Ariz. McSally and Democratic challenger Kirsten Sinema are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The picture was brighter for the state's Democrats in Congress, where Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick was elected to the Tucson-area swing district seat vacated by McSally and Democrats held all their other four seats, giving them a majority of the state's nine-member U.S. House delegation.

The Senate contest was the marquee race, featuring two champion fundraisers who are no strangers to tight races. They are battling over the seat vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who decided not to run for re-election because he realized his criticism of President Donald Trump made it impossible for him to survive politically.

U.S. Senate candidate and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema poses in between America Corrales and Terry Bortin in front of media on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at the couple's taco restaurant in Phoenix. Sinema, who is locked in a tight race with Republican Rep. Martha McSally is spending the final hours of election day talking to voters. (AP Photo/Terry Tang)

McSally and Sinema have both remade themselves politically. McSally, 52, is a onetime Trump critic who has embraced the president since his election. She has tried to rally Republican voters by emphasizing her military background as the first U.S. female combat pilot while touting her support for the president's tax cut and other parts of his agenda.

Sinema, 42, is a former Green Party activist who became a Democratic centrist with her first election to the House of Representatives in 2012.

Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally, speaks with voters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at Chase's diner in Chandler, Ariz. McSally and Democratic challenger Kirsten Sinema are seeking the senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who is retiring in January. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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Associated Press writer Bob Christie in Phoenix contributed to this report.

FILE--In this Nov. 3, 2018, file photo, a supporter, left, crosses her fingers as she talks with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, right, at a get-out-the-vote event at the Arizona Education Association headquarters in Phoenix. The congresswomen running for Arizona Senate are in their final campaign swing as Republican Rep. Martha McSally barnstormed across rural Arizona and Sinema dashed around metro Phoenix. The two candidates were trying to turn out every last voter in the neck-and-neck race. (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)

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For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. midterm elections: http://apne.ws/APPolitics

CORRECTS TO DOWNTOWN PHOENIX CAMPUS NOT TEMPE - Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, left, high-fives an Arizona State student who said she voted for her on the Arizona State University downtown Phoenix campus Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. Sinema, a congresswoman who teaches at the school, closed out her campaign against Republican Rep. Martha McSally with a dash across the Phoenix metro area. (AP Photo/Nicolas Riccardi)