Nearby, through a maze of corridors and walls plastered with maps of the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the country, a lobby that does not usually see a lot of action is now the nerve center of American politics. Television crews relay news about a complicated vote-counting process from this newly branded swing state to audiences around the world. So many reporters pack inside that there are not enough chairs. Some bring their own, while others plop onto the floor.
The attention is unprecedented in this county, which in 2020 was central to attempts by Donald Trump and his supporters to overturn the former president’s loss. Anticipating a maelstrom during the 2022 election, the county’s governing board and election officials worked for months to try to set public expectations for how the November results would roll out.
Even under the best scenarios, they repeatedly said, it could take as many as 12 days to finish counting ballots. It is a time frame familiar to anyone who has worked in and around politics here but one that many Republican candidates and party activists have cast as suspicious and unacceptable.
At a time when Maricopa County needed a near-perfect election, some printers used to produce ballots on-demand failed at about a third of polling locations on Election Day. The problems caused delays and fueled a viral spread of misinformation and accusations of malfeasance. Local leaders have noted the vote-counting operation has not changed. But the nature of its politics has. The fast-growing and diversifying Maricopa County has turned from deep red to purple, making statewide contests more competitive than ever.
“Here is the issue. We have so many close races that everyone is still paying attention to Maricopa County,” Bill Gates, the Republican chair of the Maricopa County governing board, told reporters packed into the lobby this week. “Those other states, like Florida, those races were blowouts, no one is paying attention.” It is not a criticism, he said, but “this is how we do things in Maricopa County. We follow the law. These are the laws that were put in place by the state legislature.”
At a Friday news conference, Gates was direct and occasionally exasperated as he answered repeated questions about the longstanding practices in the state. “For folks who have followed Arizona politics for many years, this is very, very common,” Gates said. “I know people are very anxious to get the results, but there is nothing out of the ordinary here.”
Why does it take so long to count votes in Maricopa County?
Two words: Early. Voting.
It has been offered for decades, and it is popular. In Maricopa County, about 80 percent of voters asked for early ballots that can be mailed, put in secure drop boxes, or handed in at polling locations on Election Day. Given that this is the fourth-largest county in the nation by population, that adds up to a lot of ballots.
When ballots arrive downtown, the work begins in a process that includes matching signatures on envelopes with signature samples on file. The ballots zip over to bipartisan teams that remove them from envelopes and then send them to tabulation. Video cameras transmit feeds that voters can watch online. In recent years, Trump, other Republican candidates and activists attacked the early voting system and instructed supporters to vote in person or to drop off their ballots on Election Day.
Voters listened. This year 290,000 people returned their early ballots at polling locations on Election Day instead of returning them earlier, a 70 percent increase from the last record in 2020. Those ballots had to be transported to downtown Phoenix from across the county, and election workers could not begin processing them until after Election Day.
While the holdup is routine, it has provided fodder for those on the right, including Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake who once covered state politics as a local television anchor, to accuse the county of malfeasance or incompetence. Those claims have been fanned by a right-wing media ecosystem eager to seize on anything that seems out of the ordinary.
“To see national networks out there and their hosts not being truthful about why it is taking this period of time, that is frustrating to these people back here, who are doing an incredible job working through Veterans Day weekend,” Gates said Friday, gesturing to election workers behind him. “We are doing things the right way. And I appreciate that you are all here, but we are not doing anything wrong at all. And that someone from here would suggest that we are doing something wrong, that is frustrating.”
How many votes are left to count in Arizona?
Maricopa County residents cast nearly 1.3 million votes in this election, and nearly 88 percent had been counted as of Saturday night, according to county officials. Of the ballots left to count over the weekend, Gates said most are early ballots that were dropped off on Election Day. Election workers were pulling 14- to 18-hour days through the federal holiday and over the weekend.
When will counting be done in Maricopa County?
Officials said they expect to have 95 percent to 99 percent of votes counted by early in the week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday. However, depending on the breakdown of the results released before then, races could be called earlier.
What is the status of the key races?
Senate: Sen. Mark Kelly (D) was projected Friday to win reelection over Republican challenger Blake Masters, a venture capitalist. Kelly led by nearly 6 points with 88 percent of ballots counted late Saturday.
Arizona governor: This race is still tight. With 88 percent of votes counted as of Saturday night, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) was leading with nearly 51 percent of the vote over Lake, who had 49 percent.
Arizona secretary of state: Democrat Adrian Fontes was projected to win Friday, defeating Republican Mark Finchem, a far-right state lawmaker who sought oversight of Arizona elections while groundlessly pushing to decertify the results from 2020.
What other Arizona races were decided after protracted vote counts?
It typically takes 10 to 12 days to finish counting all ballots, said Fields Moseley, the Maricopa County communications director. Here are some recent examples.
2020: 9 days for most outlets to declare Joe Biden the winner.
The last presidential election was the highest-profile race in Arizona history, and the incredibly narrow margins divided election analysts. Late on Election Day in 2020, with about 75 percent of ballots counted, Fox News called the race for Biden. The Associated Press did the same hours later.
But many other major outlets refrained and vote counting continued for over a week until many analysts confirmed the early calls the following Thursday. In Maricopa County, officials did not finish counting all 2.1 million ballots cast in the Nov. 3 election until the afternoon of Nov. 13.
2018: 6 days to declare Kyrsten Sinema the winner.
The last midterm election solidified the new status of Arizona as a battleground state, and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema was declared winner the Monday following Election Day, some six days after many voters cast their ballots. By the time the race was called, the Arizona Republic estimated some 170,000 votes, mostly from Maricopa and Pima counties, were still being tallied.
The race was one of the most closely watched in the nation, and while outside observers agonized over the length of the count, the Republican nominee, Martha McSally, did not question the results and quickly congratulated Sinema on her victory. As Sinema gained on McSally during the ballot counting, Trump said that votes had “appeared out of the wilderness” for the Democrat, a sentiment that took hold among his supporters.
2016: 10 days to formally declare Trump the winner.
The Associated Press projected the state for Trump two days after Election Day, but he had already secured the presidency, meaning the protracted Arizona count was never in the national spotlight. In the end, it took Maricopa County officials 10 days to finish counting ballots.
2014: Over a month to declare McSally won a House seat.
There is precedent in Arizona for especially close and contentious races to drag on for weeks. In 2014, residents of the 2nd District in southeast Arizona had to wait until December to find out who would represent them in the House. McSally won by the paper-thin margin of 167 votes after a recount and lengthy legal battles.
Did printer problems slow down the count?
On Election Day, dozens of polling places across the county printed ballots for voters that could not be immediately processed by vote-counting machines, causing chaos and confusion. Voters were told they could wait for a fix, cast a ballot at a different location or put their completed ballot in a secure drop box to be counted later.
About 17,000 ballots were submitted this way, higher than usual, although county officials insist the extra counting is not slowing them down. Operatives for both political parties say those ballots could decide the winners of tight contests.
What caused those problems?
County officials say they do not know. They said the printers passed required logic and accuracy tests ahead of Tuesday and had been used during the August primary election and the 2020 election with the same settings without problems.
Election teams are retrieving the printers from voting locations. A Maricopa County spokesperson said all of the printers will be investigated after the counting process takes place. It is unclear who will run that investigation and when it will begin.
Arizona Republicans are pushing for reforms. Would those speed up counting?
It depends. Some Republicans could support an earlier deadline for returning early ballots, an idea that could maintain a lengthy early voting system while also giving election workers time on the front end to collect and process ballots.
But other Republicans, including Lake, want “one-day voting,” which would require people to cast their ballots in assigned precincts. The current system here lets people vote at any location. Lake has also said ballots should be counted by hand rather than by tabulation machines.
The proposed changes would “create tremendous logistical challenges,” said Richard Herrera, an emeritus professor of political science at Arizona State University. The overhaul would require expanding the number of polling places and dramatically increasing the number of staffers. “There was difficulty this election in having enough poll workers,” Herrera said. “Imagine if you had to increase that more than 10-fold. That is a tremendous number of polling locations to staff.”
Election experts say hand counting ballots is less accurate than the tabulators. “There is no fatigue involved, no eyestrain involved, just a machine,” Herrera said. Earlier this year, Lake and Finchem, the Republican candidate for secretary of state, failed to convince a federal judge to do away with vote-counting machines.
Testifying as part of that legal fight, Maricopa County election director Scott Jarrett said 25,000 temporary employees would have to be hired and 2 million square feet of space would be needed, possibly as large as a sports stadium. Jarrett noted at the time that the county was struggling to hire 3,000 temporary staff for the August primary election.
Hannah Knowles and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.