2 Democrats seeking ex-Rep. Franks' seat face challenge

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FILE - In this March 24, 2017 file photo, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. speaks with a reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, as the House nears a vote on their health care overhaul. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File) FILE - In this March 24, 2017 file photo, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. speaks with a reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, as the House nears a vote on their health care overhaul. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
PHOENIX (AP) -

Maricopa County elections officials on Friday began reviewing qualifying signatures for two of three Democratic candidates seeking to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Trent Franks.

[READ MORE: Rep. Trent Franks resigns immediately amid surrogacy allegation]

The review began after a judge set a hearing for next week on the legal challenge to signatures qualifying Brianna Westbrook and Gene Scharer for the ballot.

Westbrook filed 135 more signatures than the required 665, while Scharer filed just one extra.

They are being challenged by a backer of the third Democratic candidate, Dr. Hiral Tipirneni.

None of the 12 Republican candidates' who are on the ballot attracted signature challenges. The district is heavily Republican, but Democrats hope they can pull off an unlikely major upset.

[RELATED: Suits seek to bar 2 Democrats seeking ex-Rep. Franks' seat]

Ballots have already been mailed to overseas military voters, making a successful court challenge problematic. The unusual compressed time frame for the special election meant federal law requiring military ballots to be mailed 45 days before the election overlapped with the state law requiring a challenge period after the filing of qualifying petitions.

[READ MORE: What's next after Rep. Trent Franks' resignation?]

The primary election is Feb. 27, followed by an April 24 general election.

Westbrook called it 'unfortunate" that the democratic process "has yet again been stifled by an opponent's personal wealth."

Roy Herrera, the attorney for Tipirneni supporter Lynda Vescio, said his review shows both Westbrook and Scharer are short of signatures, but Scharer is almost certainly out.

[RELATED: 13 Republicans, 3 Democrats file for ex-US Rep. Franks seat]

"You could almost take a random sample and probably knock out at least two signatures and that would put him under," he said. "We wouldn't have filed either of the lawsuits if we had not done a thorough review of the signatures and the petitions."

Herrera said he expects Westbrook's attorney to argue that he waited too long to file suit, but he said he acted within the time allowed by state law and it would have been impossible to act between the Jan. 10 filing deadline and the Jan. 12 date for military ballots to be mailed.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona Politics]

"It would have been literally physically impossible to review the signatures, file the challenge and gotten a court ruling on the challenge in literally 24 hours," Herrera said.

Jim Barton, Westbrook's lawyer, said he indeed will raise that challenge, as well as another saying there's no time for a complete appeal before early voting begins on Jan. 31.

"I know that sounds really harsh. But I understand four votes have already been cast," he said.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes said he pleaded with U.S. Department of Justice officials for a waiver of the 45-day military ballot requirement but was rebuffed.

"We tried to do what was best for the voters," Fontes said. "But when you're between a rock and a hard place, you do what federal law requires."

Fontes said 153 Democrat ballots were mailed and four already returned. He expects the signature review to be completed in advance of Tuesday's hearing.

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