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ELECTION 2018 SENATE ARIZONA

Workers at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office go through ballots Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Phoenix. There are several races too close to call in Arizona, especially the Senate race.

PHOENIX (AP) -- Every election, it takes weeks for Arizona to count its ballots. But as the Democrat in the tight U.S. Senate race there jumped into the lead in the latest results some Republicans have raised baseless allegations of fraud.

[RELATED: New numbers give Sinema slight lead over McSally in AZ Senate race]

[AND THIS: Race for schools chief flips, secretary of state closes gap as ballot counting continues]

The most prominent is President Donald Trump. On Friday morning he suggested there was something sinister about “Democrats” adding to their tallies. “Now in Arizona, all of a sudden, out of the wilderness, they find a lot of votes.”

He later tweeted, "Electoral corruption - Call for a new Election? We must protect our Democracy!" 

There is no evidence of anything unusual going on in the Arizona vote-counting - and no elected Republican officials in the state have cried foul. It’s plausible that the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s opponent, Republican Rep. Martha McSally, could jump back into the lead in coming days. That wouldn’t be suspicious, either. Here’s why:

WHY DOES ARIZONA TAKE SO LONG?

Blame the fact that Arizonans like to vote early, by mail. That sounds like a contradiction, but a mailed-in ballot requires more work for Arizona elections officials.

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ELECTION 2018 SENATE ARIZONA

Workers prepare ballots for counting machines at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Phoenix

That’s because state law requires the envelope to be sealed and signed, and for elections officials to match each signature to the one on file with the voter’s registration before even opening the envelope. In this election, that’s about 1.7 million individual signatures that had to be confirmed, one-by-one. A total of about 2.3 million votes were cast in Arizona.

[INFOGRAPHIC: Arizona voter turnout]

The problem comes in the final days when the ballots flood election offices. Voters can also drop off sealed mail ballots on Election Day, adding to the pile. Those ballots can’t be counted that day because the elections office is busy setting up and administering in-person voting.

The state’s Republican secretary of state, Michelle Reagan, added another reason: election security. To ensure against voter fraud, mail ballots dropped off Election Day - which totaled 320,000 - are double-checked with votes cast at the polls to confirm no one voted twice.

“Arizona takes elections seriously - from the poll workers to the county elections officials, and the Secretary of State’s office,” Reagan said in a statement Friday. “Everybody is working diligently to tabulate all of the election results in a manner that Arizonans can be proud of and, most importantly, trust the results.”

It normally takes more than a week to count all the ballots in Arizona. The recorder in the state’s biggest county - Maricopa, where 60 percent of votes are cast - Adrian Fontes, expects the counting to be done by Nov. 15.

[WATCH: Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes explains why tabulation process is slow]

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PKG FONTES ONE-ON-ONE 1

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes

Fontes added that another bottleneck in his office is the computer system. It dates from the 1980s and is designed for a less populated county that rarely voted by mail. So it can only process up to 75,000 ballots a day. Maricopa has about 350,000 ballots that have yet to be tallied.

WHY DID THE DEMOCRAT JUMP INTO A LEAD?

Republicans had been bracing themselves for Sinema to take the lead from McSally on Thursday night because the ballots processed then were more favorable to the Democrat. Early voting started on Oct. 10 and for more than a week Republicans held a clear edge in Maricopa County. But the gap began to narrow as Election Day approached and more Democrats turned in their ballots. On the final two days of early voting - Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 - Democrats turned in ballots at the same clip as Republicans, an unheard dynamic of in the traditionally GOP county.

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

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Ballots November 2018

It’s those ballots that were the bulk of what was released Thursday night. Sinema had been narrowly winning Maricopa before then, as was her campaign plan - she tacked to the center to woo disaffected moderate Republicans and independents. But her margin increased when the votes from the high-Democratic voting days were tabulated Thursday and she gained 19,000 votes. That put her 2,000 over McSally, who had led from the previous count.

An hour later, Democratic-leaning Pima County, the state’s second largest, released new totals that added 7,000 votes to Sinema’s margin. The next major vote release should come Friday afternoon.

WHAT ABOUT THIS REPUBLICAN LAWSUIT?

The GOP filed a lawsuit Wednesday night seeking to stop Maricopa and Pima counties from contacting voters after Election Day about problems with the signatures on their mail ballots. This step is part of what slows the count down and Republicans contend the two urban counties don’t have the legal right to do it.

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

On the other hand, Republicans argue, if the urban counties do have the right to do it, they want a judge to order all other counties to do it. That’d have the impact of adding some votes in Republican-leaning rural areas. However, it appears that less than 1 percent of all ballots are counted after this process, so the impact would likely be minimal either way.

That hasn’t stopped some Republicans from trying to make hay with the issue. In court Thursday, a judge declined to order county registrars to set aside all ballots being cured this way after being warned by an attorney for Maricopa that that’d sow chaos and slow down the count. The chairman of the Arizona Republican party, Jonathan Lines, released a statement on Friday accusing Fontes of destroying evidence by not separating the ballots.

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

[PDF: Click here to read the complaint]

[AND THIS: Plaintiffs' motion for temporary restraining order]

The Arizona GOP had also complained that Maricopa and Pima County used “mobile vote centers” to make dropping-off of mail ballots easier over last weekend, but they have not filed a lawsuit contesting that action.

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

WHO IS GOING TO WIN?

There’s no way to know yet. The Associated Press has not called the race - neither has anyone else. Each candidate has a plausible path to victory.

[CHECK: Election results]

The good news for Sinema is there still are another 150,000 ballots from the Democratic-favorable days waiting to be counted in Maricopa County. And Pima County has another 50,000 in the pipeline. While some of the more rural, conservative counties also have ballots piled up, they can’t match the numbers in the urban areas.

The good news for McSally is that, after Maricopa gets through the 150,000 ballots it received during the Democratic pre-election surge, it will open about 200,000 that were dropped off on Election Day. The McSally campaign believes those will favor the Republican because they will be cast by older voters who like the tradition of going to the polling places. Maricopa’s initial Election Day turnout was also heavily Republican, though Democrats came closer to evening it up with a surge of voters after work.

There’s only one way to find out who is right - wait for all the ballots to be counted.

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© 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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