How many votes left to count? Here's why Arizona officials didn't know

Caitlin McGlade Rob O'Dell
Arizona Republic

All eyes were on Arizona last week as the fate of the presidency seemed to hang on whether the historically red state would swing blue. 

Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Joe Biden, but a burning question dominated the conversation about the state, from Twitter to the talking heads on major television networks.

How many ballots were left to count in the Grand Canyon State? 

The answer was not a simple one. Estimates circulating on the internet varied, and not every county consistently and accurately reported how many ballots were remaining.

The state's official election results website, Arizona.vote, featured a page that appeared to track estimated remaining ballots by county. But some counties' tallies were blank, some were wrong and some didn't make sense on the Wednesday and Thursday following the election.

The Arizona Republic did its own survey of 15 county election officials, which was for several days the most complete and accurate estimate of ballots left to count statewide. 

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Arizona secretary of state staff members said they hope to quell confusion in future elections by requiring counties to report the number of outstanding ballots every time they release new results. 

Staff members are researching whether the office has the authority to mandate this or if they will need to seek support from the state Legislature. 

Providing an accurate count of outstanding ballots as election officials tally results is an important transparency measure, particularly when margins are slim, said Allie Bones, assistant secretary of state.

"We want to make sure that everybody has the full picture, especially when some of these races are as close as they are," Bones said. "The reality is that Arizona is not going to be moving out of the battleground status for probably quite some time."

To establish its estimate, The Arizona Republic called every county recorder or elections staff to verify remaining ballot figures, though a couple did not answer. The officials on several occasions gave numbers that didn't match what the secretary of state's website reported.  

Pima County, for example, was listed as having 46,000 provisional ballots left to count early Wednesday morning following the election. The Republic contacted Pima County Deputy Recorder Chris Roads, who said the numbers must be wrong because the county had never had that many provisional ballots “in our history.”

The Republic then contacted the Secretary of State's Office that same early Wednesday morning, and a spokeswoman said the numbers had been put into the wrong columns. There were not 46,000 provisionals left in Pima, but instead, 46,000 ballots left to count overall, with 18,000 of those votes being provisional ballots.

The state updated the site many hours later, midday on that Wednesday.

Leslie Hoffman, Yavapai County recorder, told The Republic late last week that the number of ballots her county had left to count was higher than what the state website indicated.

Hoffman said she thought the state wasn't asking for the full universe of remaining ballots though state staff members told The Republic that they had. 

“I can’t point fingers at them," she said, because the state gave her an opportunity to make suggestions about the form used by counties to report outstanding ballot totals during the election.

But, she added, "It didn't work as intended."

Hoffman also attributed some of the data mismatches to the fact many counties in Arizona operate elections departments and recorders' offices separately. Sometimes, her reports to the state missed remaining ballots housed at the county's elections department.  

"We should work together to have a more comprehensive ballot report throughout the election cycle," she said.

Officials in Apache County told The Republic the morning after Election Day that they had about 13,000 votes left to count in the Democratic-leaning county on Navajo Nation land.

The next day, the state's website indicated 1,100 early ballots were awaiting signature verification and 1,376 provisional ballots were left to process. The space for a total estimate was left blank.

The county ultimately dropped more than 13,000 ballots in the upcoming days, so the number provided to The Republic that Wednesday morning was correct.

The page indicated at one point that Gila County had 50 early ballots waiting for signature verification and 63 provisional ballots left to process — but only 12 total estimated uncounted ballots. 

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And though there was a field to indicate when the counties updated their remaining totals, it was sometimes difficult to tell if their update took into account the latest round of results.

Counties were not required to regularly report the number of outstanding ballots and, when they did send these figures, no one was solely responsible for ensuring the display on the state's website was accurate.

"We had one person who was inputting the information in the website and another person who was quality-controlling it, and it wasn't always happening at the same time," Bones said. 

But as pressure mounted on Arizona as a crucial decider in the presidential race — and the margins between Biden and President Donald Trump narrowed — staff honed in on getting its ballot progress page right, Bones said.

Bones sent an email on Thursday evening to all counties pleading with them to take a few minutes to complete the form the state had asked them to fill out prior to Election Day.

"As you all are acutely aware, there is a lot of interest in Arizona’s ballot counting and especially keen interest in knowing how many ballots are outstanding and when you will be finished with counting them," she wrote. 

By Friday, the ballot progress page was more accurate, but national attention had shifted away from Arizona as Pennsylvania seemed more likely to decide the presidential race. 

As of Tuesday night, the website Arizona.vote reported nearly 46,000 ballots left to count statewide, with Biden leading Trump by fewer than 13,000 votes.

This might be the first time the secretary of state put the numbers on a public web page, but it is not the first time the secretary of state has tried to estimate votes outstanding in each county.

In previous elections, starting a few days after Election Day, the state would send out a press release with a table that included the number of outstanding votes at the end of each day for each county. It estimated the remaining early and provisional ballots left at the end of each day. 

Not every single county reported every single day, especially for the smaller counties, but the numbers generally tracked what the elections departments from those counties had estimated for The Republic’s survey.

Republican pollster Paul Bentz said he's floated the idea to elections officials that ballots be scanned when voters submit them in order to know the total number of ballots that need to be counted. He said he's never gotten a clear answer to explain what prevents the government from doing that.

But, he acknowledged, the need to provide constant updates on the outstanding number of ballots is indicative of everyone's collective impatience surrounding elections.

"It perpetuates the ongoing horse race mentality we have when it comes to politics," Bentz said. "We want to know who's ahead, who's behind. There's a reason why when we watch a basketball game or a football game, they put the score on the screen."    

Reach Caitlin McGlade at caitlin.mcglade@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-0582. Follow her on Twitter @caitmcglade.