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Staff adjudicate ballots for the U.S. midterm elections, at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix, on Nov. 10.JIM URQUHART/Reuters

Charismatic, pugilistic and telegenic, Kari Lake seized the political spotlight with her allegiance to Donald Trump’s stolen-election mantra, her disdain for the media establishment that once paid her gilded salary as a news anchor and her pledge to declare an “invasion” at the southern border if she is elected governor of Arizona.

But when Maricopa County, the state’s largest voting district, reported its first count of 840,000 votes on election night, it showed Ms. Lake in distant second place, 16 percentage points behind Katie Hobbs, her Democratic opponent.

In the days that followed, Ms. Lake and her supporters have maintained an unswerving belief in her victory. “We know we’re going to win this. They’re trying to delay the inevitable,” she told conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck on Thursday.

She might be right. By Thursday evening, the gap was barely one percentage point.

Ms. Lake is an avowed election denier who has repeated the falsehood that Mr. Trump won the 2020 vote, and prominent figures on the far right have taken up her trailing position in early vote counts as evidence of fraud.

“If Maricopa county were Brazil, the UN and State Department would have declared an unlawful coup was happening,” Mike Cernovich, who gained fame as a promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy, wrote on Twitter, a message repeated by Harmeet Dhillon, a lawyer for Ms. Lake who is chair of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

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But there is good reason to believe the uncounted votes in Arizona will contain considerable support for Ms. Lake, not because of an effort to suppress her victory but because her supporters, girded with suspicion about early voting, showed up in large numbers to cast ballots on election day.

“It started really with Donald Trump,” who fomented doubts about early ballot legitimacy, said Helen Purcell, the former County Recorder for Maricopa County who spent 28 years administering elections in the Phoenix area.

It’s one of the ways conspiracies about ballot-stuffing and other election fraud have upended elections in the U.S. – and one of the reasons that, two days after the Nov. 8 vote, it remains difficult to assess who won.

Tabulators across the country have yet to count enough votes to determine which party will control Congress. Republicans have, so far, picked up five additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, enough to wrest a slim numerical majority if that tally holds.

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The Senate is less certain. Pre-election polls showed that Democrats had the greatest chances of holding their majority in that chamber, which holds power to reject presidential nominations for key offices. Republicans currently hold 49 Senate seats; Democrats, 48. The final outcome rests on three Senate races: Georgia, which will go to a runoff vote in December; Nevada, where tens of thousands of Las Vegas area ballots remain uncounted; and Arizona, where hundreds of thousands of votes have yet to be tabulated, most from Phoenix and its suburbs.

Though current Arizona tallies show Democrats in the lead, conservative and liberal election observers alike believe uncounted ballots – particularly those dropped off on election day – contain stronger support for Republican candidates.

In the past, Republicans in Arizona tended to vote early. That changed after Mr. Trump became president, and especially after he blamed his 2020 loss on rigged voting.

“Republicans just rejected voting by mail – that started in 2020,” said Sam Almy, a Democratic data analyst and political strategist in Phoenix. “I’ve never seen something take hold that dramatically before, and cause such a dramatic shift.”

This year, Maricopa County received 290,000 early ballots on election day, a record 70-per-cent higher than 2020. Those ballots must be processed, including signature verification, before they can be counted – all of it time-consuming.

Those advocating later voting are now “reaping what you’ve sown” when those ballots are counted last, T.J. Shope, a Republican state senator in Arizona, said on Twitter Thursday.

It is nonetheless Republican candidates that have repeatedly – and without evidence – called the administration of the election in Maricopa County “criminal.” On social media, Mr. Trump accused Arizona of slow reporting because they “want more time to cheat!”

Calling it deliberate lethargy is “offensive,” Bill Gates, a Republican who chairs the Maricopa County board of supervisors, responded Thursday.

“We are absolutely not slow rolling it,” he said.

Among the issues: Arizona Republicans ordered multimillion-dollar audits of the 2020 election, which resulted in additional ballot verification in 2022 that takes more time.

Ms. Lake, however, has promised voting will never be the same in Arizona if she wins.

“We’re sick of being the embarrassment that Maricopa County has made us become,” she told Fox News host Tucker Carlson, promising to get rid of tabulation machines and make it easier to hand count votes.

While advocates say such efforts will build confidence in elections, past experience has shown the opposite.

“The more the ballots are handled, the more concern there is that those ballots are compromised,” said Ms. Purcell, the former Maricopa County recorder.

Arizona already requires a hand count of ballots at 2 per cent of polling places to verify machine results. Ms. Purcell recalled splitting election workers into teams of three, each given only 10 ballots at a time.

“We found over the years if it was any more than that, they got confused,” she said.