SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Mia Love filed a lawsuit Wednesday in 3rd District Court asking a judge to order Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen to stop counting ballots to allow the campaign time to examine voters' signatures on them.
The two-term Republican congresswoman and her campaign want the opportunity to challenge the Democratic county clerk's determinations on whether the voter signatures on mail-in ballot envelopes match the signatures the county has on file.
Late Wednesday, the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The case is set to be heard at 2 p.m. Thursday in front of 3rd District Judge James Gardner in West Jordan.
Swensen said her office is still counting ballots unless a judges tells her otherwise. She said she was "surprised" by the lawsuit, noting that observers from both campaigns have been welcome to watch "every aspect of our processes."
New vote totals released about 5 p.m. Wednesday in Salt Lake and Juab counties show Love has narrowed the lead of her Democratic challenger, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, to 873 votes. That's down from more than 1,200 votes yesterday.
She trails McAdams 121,519 votes to 120,646, or 50.18 percent to 49.82 percent, in the 4th Congressional District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well Juab and Sanpete counties.
Only Sanpete County has reported that all votes are counted. With thousands of votes remaining to be counted, Salt Lake County is expected to continue daily updates, but Utah County won't report again until Friday.
McAdams, who is attending the orientation for newly elected members of Congress in Washington, D.C., slammed Love's lawsuit on Twitter as news of its filing spread.
"It is the job of election officials to decide what votes count, not political candidates," McAdams said. "Rep. Love's decision to sue only in (Salt Lake County) as she continues to trail in this race is unfortunate and smacks of desperation. Utah voters deserve better than this."
The lawsuit, which did not name any other county, asks a judge to stop Salt Lake County from separating mail-in ballots from envelopes and verifying signatures until the Love campaign has a chance to review them.
It also seeks to preclude the county from counting provisional ballots until the campaign looks at them to lodge and resolve any challenges.
The district attorney's motion to dismiss says Love and her campaign are "seeking to interrupt the process" of counting votes and because "Utah's voters have a right to privacy in their voting. The relief requested here would seem to dismiss that."
Swensen said she has no intention of stopping ballot processing.
"Not unless the court orders it," she said. "We have a statutory deadline to meet. To just say we're going to stop our process when we have so much work to do … I don't think that would be a very prudent thing to do at this point."
Love's lawsuit says a few mistaken verifications could decide the outcome of the race.
"Petitioners do not anticipate a large number of challenges, but on information and belief, in the short periods of time that poll monitors have observed signature verification, they have observed myriad instances where a county worker verified a signature on a ballot envelope that did not appear to match the signature on file with the county," according to the lawsuit.
The Love campaign has asked Swensen for a procedure that poll monitors can use to challenge the signature verifications, but Swensen has not granted that request, the lawsuit states.
Swensen said the only limitations placed on observers have been on protecting voters' personal information. She said the observers also haven't been allowed to participate in the signature verifying process because "it isn't an interactive process," she said.
"They have been in here in masses day in and day out, and they have had all the access you can imagine," Swensen said.
The campaign also made a request under the Government Records Access and Management Act for copies of all voter affidavits, "but the county has failed to provide those records."
The lawsuit cites verification concerns over some 16,300 provisional ballots.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said his office was "prepared to defend the excellent work of the best clerk in the state of Utah who runs these elections meticulously. We are prepared to vigorously defend the good work of our county clerk."
Gill added: "There's not a more conscientious clerk in the state than Sherrie Swensen. She's very diligent. She's very professional. She meticulously follows the law."
Plaintiff attorney Robert Harrington said in a statement that his clients "have great respect for the critical and at times, complex, ballot counting process."
"As we've spent hours observing these efforts, we've found a few instances where increased transparency and scrutiny are needed. Let us be clear, we are not accusing anyone of anything. Simply put, we have submitted this petition to improve the elections process," Harrington said.
Love's campaign did not respond to questions about why only Salt Lake County was targeted in the lawsuit.
On Tuesday, some Utahns received a fundraising email from the Love campaign that appears to anticipate the court filing.
"Our campaign needs staffers and lawyers to ensure ALL votes — including yours — are counted, and that liberal interest groups are not able to snag this seat away from the people," according to the email. "Will you help ensure Mia has the operation she needs to fight this race to the end? Please chip in now!"
Contributing: Katie McKellar, Lisa Riley Roche, Dennis Romboy