Kari Lake election challenge trial Day 1 recap: Lake's witnesses verified voter signatures

·6 min read

The first witness in the opening day of former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s trial, in which the Republican alleges Maricopa County didn’t verify signatures on ballot envelopes, was a woman who spent days verifying signatures.

“Your focus was on quality of signatures, not the quantity of signatures, is that correct?” Deputy County Attorney Jack O’Connor asked the woman, Jacqueline Onigkeit, who sat in the witness stand of a wood-paneled courtroom in Mesa.

“That is correct,” Onigkeit said.

Onigkeit was Lake's first witness on Wednesday, but her testimony appeared to support the county's contention that even Lake's witnesses would be a "marching band" for their case.

Day 2 updates: Kari Lake election trial enters second day with more witnesses who said they verified signatures

Lake's day in court on Wednesday included a slate of witnesses who laid the groundwork for what's to come and a few twists, too, including a call to law enforcement, though exactly why was unclear.

The trial began Wednesday on a single issue that has wound from county court to the Arizona Supreme Court, which dismissed most of the case, and back.

Lake lost the governor’s race to Democrat Katie Hobbs by about 17,000 votes and has not conceded, instead continuing to claim in court that she should be named governor or Maricopa County should redo its election.

The former candidate and Phoenix television anchor sat in the back row of Superior Court Judge Peter Thompson’s courtroom through opening statements but left midmorning. Opening statements gave attorneys for Lake, as well as defendants Maricopa County, Hobbs and the secretary of state, a chance to provide a road map of the case ahead.

The crux of the issue at trial is whether Lake can prove, with clear and convincing evidence, that Maricopa County didn’t do any signature verification, which is required by state law.

Lake's challenging the work of county employees whose job was to compare whether a signature on a voter’s ballot affidavit envelope from the 2022 election matched signatures in the voter’s records. If signatures don’t appear consistent on an initial review, the county uses two other levels of review before it determines whether to count or to try to cure the ballot.

Lake attorneys say verification happened too quickly

Lake is represented by Kurt Olsen and Bryan Blehm, who have both previously worked on efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 election, and who were fined earlier this month by the Arizona Supreme Court for lying during the ongoing court proceedings.

Blehm, in questions to witnesses on Wednesday, repeatedly and mistakenly asked about the 2020 election.

Olsen laid out Lake’s case, urging the judge to pay attention to the small amount of time it took some workers to verify signatures.

“This isn't a question of not doing it well enough, they're simply not doing signature verification,” Olsen said. “Maricopa received a flood of 1.3 million ballots in the 2022 general election. … The evidence will show that the signatures were either not reviewed at all, or that the signature verifiers were simply clicking through the computer screen and moving on to the next ballot without doing any cross-reference to the record signature.”

Olsen said he could show that an 11-step process for verifying signatures was not followed, and that more than 270,000 signatures were deemed consistent with less than three seconds of review each, which he said was not enough time to truly verify if they were a match.

“Signature verification is not an art,” Olsen said. “You don't look at signatures like a Picasso and decide whether you like it.”

He played a video of signature verification workers that appeared to show one person scrolling horizontally through records, which Onigkeit testified later wasn’t in line with signature verification procedures. Those procedures required scrolling vertically to view signatures that were already in a voter record for comparison.

However, Rey Valenzuela, the director of elections for Maricopa County, told the court why it could appear that one worker was moving quickly through those records without scrolling down while another was taking more time.

First-level reviewers look at batches of 250 signatures twice, he said, a first time that requires scrolling to see comparison signatures on file, and a second time to make sure they made a determination on each of the 250 ballots. That second look could happen quicker, he said, adding that Olsen was taking the video out of context.

Onigkeit testified that she felt pressured by second-level reviewers to work quickly and re-review ballots she had already rejected. Other witnesses included Andrew Myers, who testified he also verified signatures and raised concerns about staffing levels that were disputed by Valenzuela.

Lake also called as witnesses Shelby Busch and another activist with We The People AZ Alliance, a political action committee whose reviews questioning election results were aired at the Arizona Legislature, but discredited by the county. Those witnesses' testimonies were brief and mostly procedural, establishing that they obtained public records from the county that are part of Lake's case.

County confident in verification process

Tom Liddy, civil division chief for Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said Lake’s witnesses were actually a “marching band” for the county’s case. They are also just a few of the 155 people who did first-review signature verification for the county, he said.

Those people were all monitored by a supervisor, who had removed the signature verifier in the video presented by Olsen, Liddy said. He said the county went beyond its legal obligation to check signatures by using a three-tiered process, and Valenzuela is expected to testify more about those steps on Thursday.

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Liddy, in closing his opening statement to the judge, referenced Olsen’s words about a flood of ballots.

To verify those are from registered voters is “an extraordinary Herculean effort, which Maricopa County proudly accepts because when 1.3 million people turn out to vote, it's not a flood. It's a great day," he said.

It also was Liddy who on Wednesday afternoon asked the judge for a sidebar — essentially a meeting between the attorneys and the judge that the public cannot hear. Liddy said the matter was urgent and showed something on his cellphone screen to the judge and Lake's lawyers.

Judge Thompson proceeded with a scheduled afternoon break, during which four law enforcement officers went into his chambers at the Mesa courthouse. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office did not immediately confirm details about the incident.

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: Kari Lake election challenge trial in AZ governor's race: Day 1 recap