A lawsuit filed Friday by Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake contesting the results in the November 8, 2022, election in Maricopa County exposes, among other things, the complexities of the process for mail-in and drop-box ballots and the county’s reliance on a third-party vendor for essential election functions.

The 70-page complaint filed by Lake named Democratic gubernatorial opponent Katie Hobbs Arizona’s Secretary of State who certified the election in her own favor on December 5, as well as Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer as an officer in charge of elections, Maricopa County Director of Elections for Election Day and Emergency Voting Scott Jarrett and the five members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

The lawsuit, loaded with evidence in support of contesting the election results, revealed the complex multi-step process by which ballots returned by the U.S.P.S. or at a ballot drop box are sorted for future tabulation and the critical role that a third-party vendor plays.

Lake’s lawsuit alleges that the chain of custody forms required to document the complex handling process for 298,942 vote-by-mail ballots deposited into drop boxes or returned through the U.S.P.S. and delivered to a third party vendor, a company called Runbeck, on election day, November 8 are non-existent. Previously, Maricopa County provided 1,149 chain of custody documents covering the early voting period October 12 to November 7 to the Lake campaign after a public records request.

On a daily basis, temporary elections workers designated as ballot couriers retrieve ballots from drop boxes. The ballots are put into a container for transport, sealed, and brought to the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center (MCTEC) where they are counted, documented, sorted and placed in bins, according to the complaint.

The bins are then transported to a third-party vendor, Runbeck Election Services (Runbeck), by a Maricopa County driver, who also stops at the U.S.P.S. facility in Phoenix to pick up mail-in ballots. The ballots are then transferred to the custody of Runbeck employees.

Runbeck then scans the ballot envelopes containing the voter’s signature, making the declaration under penalty of perjury that they are the actual voter of the ballot contained in the envelope.

Images of the scanned ballot envelope signatures are then electronically transmitted by Runbeck back to MCTEC for verification against the control signature on file with the county.

Once Maricopa County notifies Runbeck which signatures are approved, the lawsuit states, Runbeck collects the ballot envelopes corresponding to the approved signatures and prepares them for transportation back to MCTEC.

Back at MCTEC, the approved ballot envelopes are opened and the ballots are removed for eventual electronic tabulation.

Much of the process outlined in the lawsuit agrees with Maricopa County Elections Department’s own documentation.

The 2022 Elections Plan for the August Primary and November General elections in the jurisdiction adds that the signature images are sent via an automated batch system from Runbeck to the elections department for review by 24 temporary signature verification clerks.

The unopened ballots are stored at the Runbeck facility, awaiting elections department staff review of signatures.

Once a multi-level signature verification and two percent audit is conducted, the disposition is sent to Runbeck for a sort into smaller physical batches based on their status. Status designations include good signature, no signature, questionable signature, need packet, among others, according to the county election plan.

The smaller batches of approximately 250 pieces each, along with matching audit reports for each batch, are secured for transport back to MCTEC by a two-person, bi-partisan team for processing or curing.

The plan indicates that “a quality control process occurs to account for all packets,” but it does not offer any details as to the process that would ensure accuracy of all aspects of the further processing of the ballots.

Details missing from the plan include, but are not limited to, a reconciliation of the total number of ballots received from Runbeck, the number of ballots by designation of good signature, no signature, questionable signature, need packet, and any other designations or whether, on a more granular level, there is a match in the names of voters in each designation between the elections department disposition and what Runbeck separated into each designation.

The transfer of ballots to Runbeck is to be documented using a chain-of-custody transfer slip signed by both elections department and Runbeck staff, according to the plan.

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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter with The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Arizona Sun Times and The Tennessee Star.
Photo “Kari Lake” by Kari Lake. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Clyde Robinson. CC BY 2.0.