Kari Lake ballot signature challenge: What to know about the claims, the evidence and the law
Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has one argument left to make in her legal challenge to the results of her November election loss.
The Arizona Supreme Court rejected six of Lake's seven claims, which other judges already had dismissed.
But on one count, an assertion that Maricopa County violated ballot signature verification laws, the court found a county judge used the wrong legal reasoning in his dismissal and should consider the issue again. The Supreme Court did not evaluate the claim on its merit, only on the legal justifications offered by lower courts.
Here, we'll break down that single issue and what's next for the case that was given extended life by the Supreme Court.
Rejected:Arizona Supreme Court rejects most of Kari Lake's election challenge
What Lake claimed about signature verification
Lake alleged that the method Maricopa County used to verify signatures on early ballot envelopes did not comply with state law.
A refresher: Arizonans who vote early sign affidavits on their ballot return envelopes attesting that they are a registered voter in their county, that they voted the enclosed ballot and have not voted in the same election somewhere else. Those signatures are checked by election workers, and Lake alleges the signatures the workers used for comparison were not allowed under state law.
Those signatures are checked by election workers, and how those workers did their checks is at issue.
In her lengthy lawsuit first filed in December, Lake argued that based on "information and belief," "a material number" of votes with signatures that were not properly verified were counted and could have altered the outcome of the 2022 election.
To back up her claim, she cited an evaluation of signatures from the 2020 election — two years earlier — done by activist Shelby Busch of the political action committee We The People AZ Alliance that alleged tens of thousands of ballots had signature mismatches. That review was debunked by Maricopa County, which rejected only 587 ballots in 2020 for mismatched signatures. In a different report, the county addressed concerns that the number was suspiciously low, noting changes in law and practice, like hiring additional staff and adding another shift to cure ballots.
Without reviewing any signatures from the 2022 election, Lake's lawsuit argued that the court should suspect problems with signatures in 2022 as Busch claimed to find in 2020.
Lake also filed declarations from three election workers who were involved in the first round of the signature verification process. They claimed they rejected large numbers of ballots, which Lake argues validates the findings in Busch's report and show "deep flaws" in the county process.
Read the arguments: Kari Lake's original lawsuit
What is the law at issue?
Lake cites a paragraph of state law that dictates how election workers should verify signatures on ballot affidavits and sets procedures for what they should do if signatures don't match what's already on file. That law is Arizona Revised Statute 16-550(A).
The law applies to early ballots and reads, in part: "The county recorder or other officer in charge of elections shall compare the signatures thereon with the signature of the elector on the elector's registration record. If the signature is inconsistent with the elector's signature on the elector's registration record, the county recorder or other officer in charge of elections shall make reasonable efforts to contact the voter, advise the voter of the inconsistent signature and allow the voter to correct or the county to confirm the inconsistent signature."
Further, the state's election procedures manual — a document drafted by the secretary of state and approved by the governor and attorney general — sets the rules for implementing laws around elections. For signature verification, the manual states that election workers can compare the signed ballot envelope to their voter registration record, including a voter registration form.
The manual says the county recorder "should also consult" signatures from other official election documents, "such as" signature rosters or early ballot request forms.
Read more: Page 68 of Arizona's election procedures manual
How does Maricopa County do signature verification?
When a ballot is mailed back to election officials, it is picked up by a bipartisan team of election workers who then deliver it to Runbeck Elections Services, a Phoenix-based company that helps print and scan ballots used in elections around the country.
The company's staffers scan the outside of each unopened early ballot envelope to capture an image of the voter's signature.
Workers put those images into a system for elections staff to review. While the physical ballots are stored in a secure location, election workers trained by a forensic signature specialist compare images of each voter's signed affidavit with up to three of their other signatures on file. Usually, elections staff will look at the most recent signatures they have for a voter, said Maricopa County spokesperson Megan Gilbertson.
Per county election officials, Maricopa County's signature verification system only contains signatures from:
- Voter registration forms, which may include driver’s license applications or documents updating a voter’s registration.
- Early ballot affidavits from previous elections.
- Poll books.
There are several levels of human review of signatures. If first-level review staff are unsure that a voter's signature matches with other signatures on file, a manager with higher-level training reviews all signature samples in the verification system. If that manager determines the signature matches the samples, the ballot gets counted.
Otherwise, a specialized team will reach out to the voter in an attempt to "cure," or verify, the signature — a process outlined in state law. If the voter confirms they signed the affidavit, the ballot will get counted. But they must do so by the cure deadline, which was Nov. 16 for last year's midterms.
Managers also audit 2% of every 10,000 signatures that first-level reviewers verify, election officials said, randomly selecting verified affidavits to check before each batch of ballots move on in processing.
What prior courts ruled in Lake's case
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson dismissed the signature verification allegation because of a legal doctrine called "laches," prior to a two-day trial on other claims in Lake's case in December.
The laches doctrine prevents lawsuits that are delayed and bars challenges to election procedures after elections have taken place. Thompson noted that Lake's original lawsuit cited an April 2022 report from former Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich that questioned signature verification systems, saying that by quoting the report, Lake was "on notice" about the issues and "offers no explanation for the delay" in filing her claim.
Read the ruling: Judge Peter Thompson's ruling on Page 7
Lake appealed Thompson's ruling dismissing her entire case, and the Court of Appeals affirmed Thompson's reasoning that the signature verification claim must be dismissed because Lake knew of the procedural issues before Election Day.
The Arizona Supreme Court, however, disagreed.
Read the ruling: Appeals court ruling on the issue on Page 10
What the Arizona Supreme Court said
"Contrary to the ruling of the trial court and the Court of Appeals opinion, this signature verification challenge is to the application of the policies, not to the policies themselves," the Supreme Court's opinion reads. "Therefore, it was erroneous to dismiss this claim under the doctrine of laches because Lake could not have brought this challenge before the election."
It sent the single remaining element of Lake's case back to Thompson, directing him to evaluate if Lake's claim was valid, or could be dismissed for another reason, and if she could prove enough votes were affected by the signature verification practices to alter the outcome of the election. That conclusion must come from math, "not simply an untethered assertion of uncertainty," the Supreme Court said.
Mark Kokanovich, a Phoenix attorney with Ballard Spahr's political and election law group, said the court's ruling allows Lake to make her case based on the claims she's already outlined in court documents. Kokanovich is not involved in this case, and reviewed records at The Arizona Republic's request to help analyze the legal issue. (Lake's attorney and her spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.)
"This is really giving Kari Lake every benefit of the doubt, to be able to go back at this stage and try to fortify this challenge with facts," Kokanovich said. "But the Maricopa County Recorder's Office will also be able to put on evidence about how they did follow the policies. We'll see what the evidence says, but coming up with the number of votes to actually impact the governor's race strains credulity at this point."
At CPAC:Kari Lake insults Democrats, holds to election denialism
What Maricopa County and Gov. Hobbs said
Maricopa County officials have staunchly defended their work in numerous lawsuits stemming from the November election. They've repeatedly said that Lake's case is without merit and that while no election runs perfectly, the November gubernatorial race was conducted according to state law and the results are valid.
More than 150 workers spent thousands of hours reviewing 1.5 million signatures during the November 2022 election, Republican Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said in a statement. They found 18,510 questionable signatures after a multilevel review process, Richer said, but 15,411 of those were verified by calling, mailing, texting and emailing voters — the curing process mandated by state law.
"Those thousands of people can attest to the checks of our process, as can the over 150 bipartisan workers who reviewed signatures," Richer said. "Workers are always told that accuracy is the only important factor."
Read Maricopa County's response: County responds to Lake's lawsuit, with information on the signature verification arguments beginning on Page 6
Hobbs' attorneys have argued that Lake is misreading the signature verification law in arguing that the county used other signatures on file that weren't allowed for comparison. They contend that Lake's interpretation is that a voter registration file includes only a registration form, though there are multiple election documents and signatures in the file.
The legal team for Hobbs also noted that the Arizona Legislature in 2019 amended the law to give county recorders more signature verification options. Prior to 2019, the law said comparison signatures must only come from "the signature of the elector on his registration form.”
But after lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1054, the law allowed comparison to signatures in "the elector’s registration record." The bill was approved unanimously by the Republican-majority Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in April 2019.
What's next for Lake's election lawsuit?
Thompson issued an order Thursday outlining the path forward for the signature verification claim.
He directed lawyers for Lake, Hobbs and the county to file supplemental written arguments on the signature verification issue, due by March 28. He also said the lawyers should clear their calendars for a possible oral argument on March 30 if Thompson wants to hear more.
Given the direction of the Supreme Court, it is possible lawyers for the county and Hobbs could argue another legal ground for Thompson to dismiss the claim.
Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.
Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic with a focus on voting and democracy. Do you have a tip about elections or questions about voting? Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.