PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- As ballot counting continues, new numbers from the Secretary of State’s Office have given Democrat Kyrsten Sinema a slight lead over Republican Martha McSally in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake and become Arizona’s first female senator.

Not only is the race historic for Arizona -- sending its first woman to the Senate -- it's been a must-watch race all over the country.

Kyrsten Sinema Martha McSally Senate race home stretch

Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema, left, and Republican U.S. Rep. Martha McSally courted undecided voters on the eve of Election Day.

Up until 5 p.m. Thursday, McSally had the lead by about 17,000.

New numbers from several of Arizona's 15 counties -- including Maricopa County -- changed that.

As of early Thursday evening, there was a margin of about 2,000 votes separating Sinema and McSally. That's about one-tenth of 1 percent.

[CHECK: Election results]

That margin widened to about 9,600 by 7 p.m. Thursday. That's a little more than one-half of 1 percent -- still tight.

Angela Green, of the Green Party, who dropped out of the race earlier and asked her supporters to vote for Sinema, had accumulated more than 43,000 votes.

Record-setting midterm

It's important to note that more ballots were cast in Arizona's midterm election than any other midterm election in state history.

According to the Secretary of State Office's website, more than 1.9 million ballots have been counted so far.

Garrett Archer, a senior analyst with the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, says the turnout is pacing to hit 2.3 million ballots cast, putting the 2018 midterm election on par with what we see for a presidential election.

[INFOGRAPHIC: Arizona voter turnout]

While the Senate race is the biggest, most-watched match-up to flip with the updated numbers, it's certainly not the only one.

Democrat Kathy Hoffman took the lead over Republican Frank Riggs in the race for superintendent of public instruction.

Also, Democrat Katie Hobbs closed within 1 percentage point of Republican Steve Gaynor for secretary of state, a race already called for Gaynor by The Associated Press.

[MORE ON THAT: Race for schools chief flips, secretary of state closes gap as ballot counting continues]

"This isn't over yet..."

There are still about 345,000 ballots to be counted in Maricopa County, according to County Recorder Adrian Fontes. Maricopa is home to about 60 percent of Arizona's voters.

"Election Officials estimate about 195,000 of these are early ballots, provisional and out-of-precinct ballots that voters cast or dropped off on Election Day," according to Sophia Solis of the Maricopa County Recorder's Office.  "Additionally, about 150,000 early ballots that the Elections Department received before Nov. 6 must be tabulated."

Ballot counting Maricopa County 2018

The equipment, which is older than what is generally used throughout the country, has a maximum daily capacity of about 75,000 votes, so there probably will not be a definitive answer for another couple of days.

"There's (sic) still plenty of votes out there and there may very well be more movement," Fontes told Arizona's Family political editor Dennis Welch shortly after the updated numbers were released. "We don't know what the voice of the people is until we get to counting."

[WATCH: Fontes explains why tabulation process is slow]

Teams, which are comprised of two people from different political parties, are working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to make sure the tabulations are done correctly.

"We have more people now than years past, but we are expanding our auditable processes now so that we can get a little bit more accurate reporting out of these ballots," Fontes explained. "This isn't over yet and we'll see what happens."

[RELATED: County recorder explains why ballot counting takes so long in Maricopa County]

Pima County has about 88,000 ballots left to count.

There are several thousand more in Arizona's other counties, according to a tweet by Archer.

Both candidates, particularly McSally, were prepared for a long counting process.

It took The Associated Press 12 days to declare a winner in McSally’s first race for Congress, which she narrowly lost.

On Thursday, she tweeted: “Woke up this morning dreading a long and painful process. I’ve been here before, and now, here I am again.the dentist’s chair.” She attached a photo of herself leaning back at the dentist’s office, about to get her teeth examined.

Sinema's camp released a statement Thursday about the drawn-out count, as well.

“Arizonans must have faith that their votes are counted, and we are working diligently to ensure that count proceeds in a fair, transparent, and timely manner that voters can trust," Sinema's campaign manager Andrew Piatt said. "To that end, we have spent the hours since the polls closed tracking down ballots and know there are more than 600,000 left to be counted across the state. We also know that when the Maricopa County recorder releases its first batch of ballots this evening, there will still be approximately half a million votes left to count. Once they are counted, we are confident that Kyrsten Sinema will be the next senator for the state of Arizona.”

McSally's campaign is just as sure the Republican will come out the winner.

"With half a million ballots left to count we remain confident that as votes continue to come in from counties across the state, Martha McSally will be elected Arizona's next senator," campaign CEO Jim Bognet said as the latest numbers rolled in Thursday.

Fontes said he knows how McSally and Sinema must be feeling.

"It took 10 days for my results to come in," he told Welch, explaining what changes he's looking to make for 2020. 

"We did a lot of front-end improvements," he said. "Those are the things that the voters saw -- the new check-in systems, the vote centers, things of this nature. While we can only make so many improvements at a time, now we're going to be focusing in on the back end while still trying to improve the front end. This is a back-end process that has not changed since my administration started," he said.

Early ballots playing big role in outcome

Thursday's development -- Sinema taking the lead -- was not entirely unexpected.

There has been speculation that "late earlies" -- mail-in ballots that arrived on Election Day or were dropped of by voters -- could swing the election in favor of Democratic candidates.

[READ MORE: Outstanding early ballots could benefit Arizona's Democratic candidates]

Archer said younger voters, who tend to lean left seem to prefer mail-in ballots while Republicans tend to prefer in-person voting.

“I wouldn't be surprised if that first Thursday at 5 p.m. drop was a little more favorable to some of the Democratic candidates,” Archer said Wednesday night. 

And it looks like he was right. At least for now.

Things could definitely change as more ballots are tabulated.

Arizona's Family will keep a close eye on this and other too-close-call races as the ballot counting continues.

[IN A NUTSHELL: Takeaways from Arizona's midterm election]

What about the Republicans' lawsuit?

The Republican Party in several Arizona counties filed suit Wednesday over how early ballots are handled and whether some of them should be counted.

early ballot for Nov. 6, 2018 election

You have until Oct. 26 (this Friday) to request an ballot by mail. The deadline to have it postmarked for submission is Oct. 31.

The specific issue is how counties have allowed voters to fix problems with signatures on mailed-in early ballots. It varies county to county.

[WAS MY BALLOT COUNTED? Check the status of your mail-in ballot]

The lawsuit, which names Secretary of State Michelle Reagan and each of the recorders in Arizona's 15 counties, asks a judge to prevent the county officials from counting certain ballots that were delivered with signature issues. That's roughly 5,600 votes in Maricopa County.

[ORIGINAL STORY: Arizona Republicans suing Secretary of State Michelle Reagan, all county recorders over early ballots]

For now, the counting continues.

Judge Margaret R. Mahoney said it was too soon to require Maricopa and other counties to stop contacting voters to verify signatures on mail ballots. She also declined to order the counties to temporarily separate mail ballots that have been verified by that process after Election Day.

A hearing on the court filing is scheduled for 2  p.m. Friday in Maricopa County Superior Court. Mahoney has said she will rule then.

[MORE ON THAT: Election law expert talks about GOP suit and imminent hearing]

The Arizona Democratic Party took an opposite fight to court Thursday "to ensue every vote is counted."

“[W]e went to court today to compel the Maricopa County Recorder to release information that will help the Arizona Democratic Party contact voters whose ballots are in danger of rejection," Marc Elias, counsel for the Party said in a statement Thursday night. "We won this case and expect the county to comply with that order so our work may continue. We have requested the same information from other counties, and if it is not provided by 12 noon tomorrow, we will take the legal action necessary to obtain it.”

The county recorders

* Apache County - Edison Wauneka

* Cochise County - David Stevens

* Coconino County - Patty Hansen

* Gila County - Sadie Jo Bingham

* Graham County - Wendy John

* Greenlee County - Berta Manuz

* La Paz County - Shelly Baker

* Maricopa County - Adrian Fontes

* Mohave County - Kristi Blair

* Navajo County - Doris Clark

* Pima County - F. Ann Rodriguez

* Pinal County - Virginia Ross

* Santa Cruz County - Suzanne Sainz

* Yavapai County - Leslie Hoffman

* Yuma - Robyn Stallworth Pouquette

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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