Judge rules against Kari Lake, affirms Hobbs as AZ governor in election signature verification trial

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A Maricopa County judge has affirmed — again — Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' win in November and rejected Republican Kari Lake's claims that improper signature verification and misconduct affected the outcome.

The ruling comes after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson heard three days of testimony and argument in his Mesa courtroom May 17-19. That proceeding, an unusual second trial in Lake's legal challenge to her November loss to Hobbs, was limited to a single claim about signature verification.

Lake's legal team argued it could prove signatures were examined in a matter of seconds, so short a timeframe it did not count as verification under state law. Thompson, in a Monday night ruling, disagreed.

"Accepting that argument would require the court to re-write not only the (Election Procedures Manual) but Arizona law to insert a minimum time for signature verification and specify the variables to be considered in the process," he wrote.

Lake has not conceded the race, which she lost by 17,117 votes, or less than 1 percentage point. Instead, she's pressed forward in court asking judges to set aside Hobbs' win, and she is likely to appeal Thompson's latest ruling.

Defense lawyers welcomed Thompson's decision following the case that, while seemingly about signature verification, often veered into larger questions about securing elections and voter trust.

"The court's ruling only confirms what we have known all along: Arizona’s elections are safe, secure, and reliable, and those who help facilitate Arizona’s elections are honest, have the highest integrity, and are committed to the preservation of our democracy," said Craig Morgan, an attorney with Sherman & Howard who represented the secretary of state. "This is a victory for Arizona, our election processes, and voters across the state."

In a statement, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors Chairman Clint Hickman, a Republican, critiqued Lake's false claims and her effort to "discard the valid votes of hundreds of thousands of Arizona voters."

"When 'bombshells' and 'smoking guns' are not backed up by facts, they fail in court," he said. "This is justice, and this is what happened today in Kari Lake’s election contest."

While Lake considers whether to appeal, she may also face the prospect of additional fines. Thompson's ruling set an expedited schedule for this week for defense lawyers to request Lake to cover their costs, if they make such an ask.

Recap of the May trial

Shepherding Lake's case were lawyers Bryan Blehm and Kurt Olsen, who both have ties to past efforts to overturn election results and were ordered to pay $2,000 in Lake's current case for lying to the court about claims that 35,000 ballots were added to the count.

At trial, that legal team made the case that Maricopa County election workers compared voter signatures on ballot envelopes with signatures in their voting record so quickly, it could not meet the legal standard for comparison. In his ruling, Thompson noted that was a shifting strategy, because Lake's team once made the argument no verification had taken place.

The relevant state law says election officials who receive early ballots returned in a voter-signed affidavit envelope "shall compare the signatures thereon with the signature of the elector on the elector's registration record." If the signatures are "inconsistent," the county should contact the voter, beginning a process known as curing the ballot.

A key witness for Lake's case, Erich Speckin, testified that an analysis of keystroke logs provided by Maricopa County showed election workers compared signatures over 270,000 times in less than three seconds, and of those 70,000 were less than two seconds, which Speckin said would not be possible to do given his own experience.

But the county and other defendants in the case questioned his reliability, pointing to past instances he was not allowed to testify in court and highlighting his connection to a widely criticized Arizona Senate review of the 2020 presidential election. The county's legal team urged Thompson not to trust the accuracy of his math, saying Speckin's analysis was based on a misunderstanding of the data.

County attorneys also repeatedly noted Thompson's own words from prior rulings that said Lake, to be successful, must prove election workers did not do any signature verification — a standard tanked by two of Lake's own witnesses, Jacqueline Onigkeit and Andrew Myers, who testified about their own work to verify signatures over the course of several days.

Maricopa County Director of Elections Rey Valenzuela, who said he verified 1,600 signatures himself last year, also explained why ballots would be verified quickly. That includes a voter forgetting to sign the affidavit, and egregious discrepancies like two different names. Or, when signatures are an exact match and the worker doesn’t need to look at more than one comparison signature. The county makes three available.

It was Valenzuela's testimony that Thompson, in his Monday ruling, found "most helpful" and the "most credible."

Thompson wrote that even if he were to follow Lake's argument that he should evaluate whether the signature comparison was adequate, "the Court finds that Mr. Valenzuela provided ample evidence that — objectively speaking — a comparison between voter records and signatures was conducted in every instance Plaintiff asked the Court to evaluate."

And ultimately, Thompson noted that "Mr. Valenzuela testified that the final canvass was accurate. No clear and convincing evidence, or even a preponderance of evidence, contradicts him."

The trial ended with tense closing arguments, and both sides laying blame for a larger issue — growing distrust in elections. That erosion has happened primarily among Republican voters, whose candidates often question outcomes after they lose.

Olsen said the declining confidence was due to "election officials not following the law," which Deputy County Attorney Tom Liddy rejected in his own closing argument. The distrust, Liddy said, was connected to lies and misinformation being spread on the internet.

“The fact that some people in Arizona, and some people in America, don't have confidence in our elections is not evidence as suggested by Ms. Lake's team that the many counties across this fruited plain are not doing their job," Liddy said, "but it may just be that people are reading the stuff that they write.”

How we got to trial in May

The former television news anchor first filed her case in December, arguing that issues with ballot tabulators and long lines in Maricopa County were sufficient cause to declare her Arizona's 24th governor, or redo the election in the state's most populous county. She claimed issues with tabulators were the result of officials' misconduct, that chain of custody procedures for ballots were violated, and that the signature verification process was flawed.

But Thompson heard two days of testimony and evidence, dismissing Lake's claims with an order that explained the law did not allow him to "accept speculation or conjecture in place of clear and convincing evidence."

In that trial, as well as the one last week, Lake's own witnesses torpedoed her case. Thompson wrote in December that each was asked about intentional misconduct and "every single witness before the Court disclaimed any personal knowledge of such misconduct."

The dismissal was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed there was no evidence to support most of Lake's claims, though it sent the issue of signature verification back to Thompson, taking issue with the legal reasoning he used to dismiss that single count.

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Judge rules against Kari Lake in Arizona governor election trial