Vote by Mail (Not to Mention Democracy) At Stake in Arizona Secretary of State Race

In 2020, Adrian Fontes oversaw the administration of elections in Arizona’s Maricopa County. With over four million residents, including Phoenix, it is by far Arizona’s most populous county. As its elected recorder, Fontes, a bearded-and-bespectacled former prosecutor, maintained the rolls on over two-and-a-half million voters. He was responsible for making sure that this swing county in a swing state held a clean, fair election as Joe Biden and Donald Trump squared off. A former Marine, Fontes knew how to fight, but he couldn’t have anticipated the battle that awaited him.

On Election Day, a mob of Trump supporters rallied outside the Maricopa County election offices after Fox News called Arizona for Biden—the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate in the Grand Canyon State in 24 years and only the second since 1948. Protestors with Trump flags squared off with police, demanding to be let in. They joined in raucous cheers of “NO!” when Representative Paul Gosar, a far-right Congressman who pals around with white nationalists, asked the crowd, “They’re not going to steal this election from us, are they?” He ominously referred to the election night protest as “their Alamo.”

Trump protestors stayed outside the election headquarters for weeks. Alex Jones made an appearance. Election deniers focused on Maricopa, and some threatened Fontes and his team, so much so that the county enlisted security. For months, the Republican-controlled state senate conducted a massive and ludicrous $6 million audit of Maricopa County’s elections spearheaded by a company founded by a stop-the-steal supporter. It eventually concluded that there had been no foul play in Maricopa County. A father of three, Fontes didn’t sleep well during this period. On top of everything else, he lost his reelection bid by a mere 0.3 percent. 

Still, when Fontes recalls the madness of 2020, he has an “odd fondness” for the year. “The reactions from other people, the audits—all that stuff really just proved that we did the job right,” he told me. “In a weird way, I kind of appreciate the scrutiny, because it showed what a great team I had and what a solid system I built.”

Fontes is a Democrat running to be Arizona’s Secretary of State—a position that would make him responsible for voting infrastructure and certifying elections in a state that could decide the next presidential election. His opponent, Mark Finchem, is among the loudest and most far-right election deniers running anywhere this year. 

Known for his cowboy outfits as well as his conspiracy theories, Finchem is an Oathkeeper who has fundraised with 9/11 truthers and QAnon members and was in the leadership of the Ammon Bundy’s Coalition of Western States, the anti-government militia that has occupied public land and fought the government in an armed standoff when some of its members took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016. 

A Michigander for over 40 years, Finchem moved to Arizona after retiring from law enforcement. As a state representative, he spent the months after the 2020 election corresponding with Trump advisors to devise a plan to disqualify ballots for Biden by analyzing their “kinetic markings”—a desperate heave even as far as fraud claims go. He hosted Rudy Giuliani at a Phoenix hotel to discuss falsehoods about “election integrity.” As the judiciary struck down each fraud allegation, Finchem would claim a new Biden conspiracy. He was a driving force behind the election auditing. This year, Finchem introduced legislation to decertify the last election and “set aside” the ballots in three counties, including Maricopa, as “irredeemably compromised.” Trump backed him in the primaries, and Finchem wears a “Trump 45” pin in honor of the man he thinks won the last election.

Finchem was in Washington on January 6. He didn’t enter the U.S. Capitol with the mob, but he was in town to deliver an “evidence book” documenting so-called election fraud to Representative Gosar and communicated with rally organizer Ali Alexander. The January 6 Committee subpoenaed and interviewed him. We don’t know what he told the panel, but we do know that during this year’s Republican primary for secretary of state, Finchem said he would refuse to concede his own race if he lost. When asked by Time’s Charlotte Alter if he would certify a Biden win in 2024, Finchem scoffed at the idea that Biden could win without fraud, calling it a “fantasy” and adding that he doesn’t know anyone who voted for Biden.

After he lost the 2020 election, Trump did everything he could to overturn it, from begging Georgia’s secretary of state to find more votes for him to inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol. In Arizona, Trump leaned on Republicans, including the governor, the secretary of state, and the House speaker, but they stood up to him. In 2024, democracy may not be so lucky.

Critical to the mission of election deniers is the secretary of state’s office, and it’s a real possibility they could take office not only in Arizona but in other swing states such as Nevada and Michigan and wreak havoc on election infrastructure. Though elections are decentralized, and the powers of secretaries of state vary, in Arizona, Finchem could impose restrictions on mail-in voting and mire the results in endless audits. Most disturbing is not necessarily what a secretary of state can do, but what they could refuse to do—certify the victory of anyone not named or approved by Trump.

In a doomsday scenario, Finchem, as Secretary of State, could refuse to certify a Democratic win in 2024. The governor must also sign on to the slate of electors. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs notes that she would be the last line of defense if she won, and Finchem did, too. But even if Hobbs won, a Finchem victory could unleash a level of distrust in election systems that would be hard to repair. If Arizona, as a critical swing state, proves decisive in the electoral college, Finchem’s lack of certification, or endless investigations into the legitimacy of the election, could plunge 2024 into chaos.

Comparing Fontes and Finchem is like comparing apples and insurrectionists. 

Fontes describes January 6 as a violent attempt to overthrow the Constitution; Finchem spoke at a pre-rally the day before and posted his own photo of the mob to Twitter, saying, “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud!” Fontes says he would serve with a “dispassionate, ministerial approach”; Finchem calls him “[George] Soros’ handpicked Marxist who will turn Arizona into California with open borders [and] rigged elections.” Fontes wants to ease barriers to voting; Finchem wants to end vote by mail, which Arizonans have enjoyed for over 30 years and is now utilized by an astounding 80 percent of voters, and only allow home balloting for those who can’t physically make it to the polls.

Since 2007, Arizona has had a permanent early voting list in which registrants automatically receive their ballots in the mail for each election. The policy helped Arizona build one of the country’s strongest vote-by-mail regimes. The state had the highest percentage of votes cast early, by mail, and absentee in the country in 2016. Ironically, Finchem joined the list in 2008, six years before he first won election to the state house. He has automatically received a ballot and voted 28 times out of the last 30 elections by a means he now wants to eliminate. 

When asked how he could view the 2020 election as irredeemably compromised but believe his own 2022 primary victory in the secretary of state race was valid, with the same election procedures in place, Finchem said, “I have no idea. It is what it is.”

Finchem speaks in a conspiracy-laden patois. He frequently references 2,000 Mules, the Dinesh D’Souza-directed documentary falsely claiming that Democrats stuffed ballot drop boxes. He often mentions “Yuma County,” a penny-ante plot, at best, where two Arizonans pled guilty to ballot abuse after delivering five ballots for non-relatives in a local race. He touts a “hand count,” which is how Finchem wants votes to be tabulated because machines are vulnerable to Venezuelan plots to overturn our elections. Finchem and Republican gubernatorial candidate Lake have filed a lawsuit to overhaul Arizona’s election rules and force hand counts in 2022, which a judge dismissed, saying they lacked standing. 

But forcing a hand count is something Finchem could conceivably establish in office, despite its impracticality, potentially imperiling the count’s accuracy. That could drag out the count, which, per Arizona law, must be completed within 27 days—a feat that could prove impossible

Can Finchem win? It’s not only plausible but entirely possible. But Finchem, whom a fellow Republican state legislator called “one of the dumbest legislators in the statehouse,” has a slight lead. A FiveThirtyEight analysis of five polls in the last month found Finchem averaging a two-point advantage. 

A CNN poll published on October 6 found Finchem leading Fontes, 49-45 percent. In late September, OH Predictive Insights, an Arizona-based nonpartisan polling firm, had Finchem leading Fontes by 5 points, with 25 percent of voters still undecided. Meanwhile, another late September poll commissioned by End Citizens United, a liberal group, gave Fontes a two-point lead—which expanded to ten points after prospective voters heard both positive and negative statements about the candidates.

The election will come down to three factors—the large independent vote, the early vote, and the notoriety, or lack thereof, of a secretary of state’s race.

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in Arizona, but a third of the electorate are registered independents. This group is known for electing independent sorts like John McCain, Jeff Flake, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Kelly and determining Arizona elections.

Arizonans, particularly independents, also like to vote early—89 percent of them utilized the state’s three-week early voting period in 2020, including over 80 percent of the state’s registered Republicans. 

“If we see a high number of independents returning early ballots, that probably trends better for Adrian Fontes,” said Lorna Romero, an Arizona-based Republican strategist. Fontes echoed the sentiment, saying his strategy will rely on early voting, knowing that a wave of loyal Republican voters who now distrust vote by mail will show up on Election Day.

Since 2016, Arizona has routinely rejected Trump-backed candidates at the statewide level. In 2018, independents broke for Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican who has publicly fought with Trump over the election results. In 2020, they voted for Biden and Kelly. 

This year, all the Republicans seeking statewide office are election deniers who ran farthest to the right in their primaries—not only Lake and Finchem but also Blake Masters and Attorney General candidate Abraham Hamadeh. They’re essentially a slate. The question is whether irritation with Biden and inflation will outweigh voters’ concerns about crazy talk. 

“I see no reason why [Arizona independents] would go back to voting for a MAGA candidate,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican consultant who’s run campaigns in the state. It seems that the denier slate has conceded this. At a recent Trump rally, Lake didn’t bring up the 2020 election. Masters scrubbed his campaign site of material about it, and even Finchem has adopted an I’m-only-asking-questions tone. 

Coughlin’s analysis finds that overwhelming majorities of Democrats and undecided voters, as well as 35 percent of Republicans, aren’t buying election denialism. Still, if a conservative-leaning independent, or even a Republican, has already voted for Democrats Katie Hobbs for governor and Mark Kelly for Senate, Coughlin worries they may not know enough about the secretary of state race or they may not be able to stomach voting for yet another Democrat.

“Do people go, ‘I’ve got to vote for a Republican somewhere on here?’ ” he said. “That’s the big question.”

All the strategists I spoke with agreed Fontes is running a strong campaign, casting himself as a public servant with bipartisan appeal. He boasts a “Republicans for Fontes” coalition, and the Democratic group iVote, as part of a $5 million investment in the secretary of state race, hit the airwaves with their first TV ad of the cycle on Oct. 11, calling out Finchem’s QAnon ties.

But Finchem has outraised Fontes, so strategists say that to win, the former Maricopa County recorder must carefully marshall his limited resources to define himself and Finchem.

He also has to raise the existential stakes.

“While the introductory messages, the ‘Hi, I’m a veteran, a DA lawyer’ touchy-feely stuff is nice, and we’re doing it,” says Fontes, who pooh-poohs fellow Democrats as “soft” on messaging. “We’re following it up with a left hook.” Fighting Finchem and for democracy, he’ll need it. 

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