- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Elections officials in Arizona’s most populous counties said Wednesday they need another day at least to count ballots that will determine the fate of a proposal to tap the state’s land trust fund to boost education funding.

County recorders in the state’s five largest counties contacted by The Associated Press said they have more than 112,000 outstanding early and provisional ballots to process and count. Most said they expect to actually count the ballots Thursday and possibly Friday.

Arizona voters were almost evenly split on Proposition 123 in Tuesday’s special election. The measure backed by Gov. Doug Ducey would pump $3.5 billion into the state’s K-12 school system over 10 years using general fund and trust land cash.

The measure held a tiny lead of about 7,600 votes out of more than 931,000 votes counted Wednesday after more than 9,000 new votes were posted late Wednesday. Its slim lead narrowed to just 50.4 percent of the vote. It must exceed 50 percent to pass.

Of the five largest counties, only Pima planned to count ballots Wednesday, and most of the new votes appear to come from that county. The county recorder’s office was processing about 8,500 early ballots and another 1,300 provisional ballots at midday, and Elections Director Brad Nelson said many were to be counted in the afternoon. He said remaining early ballot counts likely will be completed Thursday afternoon.

Maricopa County alone has about 76,000 early ballots to count and more than 1,500 provisional ballots to review. Elizabeth Bartholomew, spokeswoman for Recorder Helen Purcell, said elections workers will spend Wednesday verifying those ballots and actual counting likely won’t occur until Thursday.

Recorders in Coconino and Pinal counties said they don’t expect to count votes until Wednesday, while Yavapai County Recorder Leslie Hoffman said some counts may occur Wednesday but Thursday is more likely. Between the three counties, about 25,000 early and provisional ballots need to be verified and counted.

All in all, that means backers like Ducey who hoped for a big win are left wondering where they went wrong, although the governor and the campaign manager for the Yes on Prop 123 campaign, J.P. Twist, said they were hopeful with the lead.

“How can it be a rebuke from voters if we’re winning, if voters are saying ‘yes’ for more money for education,” Twist said in response to a reporter’s question during a Capitol news conference. “A win is a win, if we win by one vote we win by one vote, we get more money into schools. That’s all that really matters.”

The “yes” campaign spent nearly $5 million to sway voters, much of it on television ads that blanketed the airwaves in the weeks leading up to the election. Ducey acknowledged in a state issued Wednesday that the political environment was a challenge for a voter referral boosting spending. But he said he remained hopeful the measure would pass.

Sen. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat who voted for the measure, said the slight lead shows voters are distrustful of the governor and Republican-controlled legislature.

“I don’t know of anybody who was enthusiastic about this,” Farley said late Tuesday. “Ultimately I voted yes because I felt that it was the only way we could get money into schools right away until we change the majority.”

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