After he finished his military enlistment in 1996, Adrian Fontes spent about a decade as a prosecutor. Fontes’s interests, and career path, seemed clear. A native Arizonan, he spent time first in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, followed by a stint in Colorado; then he returned home to run the international prosecution unit at the Arizona attorney general’s office. He eventually went into private practice. The law seemed like Fontes’s calling.
And then one day Fontes got mad about how Maricopa County ran elections. He fumed over the infuriatingly long wait times to vote—sometimes four or five hours. So Fontes ran for office in 2016 and was elected Maricopa County recorder. In 2020, Fontes found himself helping to oversee the hotly disputed (even as there was no actual doubt about the outcome) Maricopa County elections—and his own defeat, to now-Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican.
Today, Fontes once again finds himself in a situation directly related to how Arizona runs its elections: He is running to be the state’s top elections official against a Republican nominee who wants to upend the core pillars of the state’s elections.
Fontes is not coy about what’s at stake in 2022. “A lot of the times people say, ‘This is the most important election ever.’ I don’t tell people that. I tell people that this is possibly the last election ever,” Fontes said in an interview with The New Republic.
That’s because Fontes is facing perhaps the most high-profile and pro-Trumpian candidate for a state secretary of state office in the country, in Mark Finchem. Finchem has made national headlines for his background of indulging in conspiracy theories, his connections to the extremist Oath Keepers group, his signature denialism of the 2020 election results, and his participation in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. He of course had Trump’s endorsement in the primary.
The way Finchem sees it, early voting should be banned. He also opposes voters using electronic machines to count votes, and as a state legislator Finchem co-sponsored a bill that would let the state legislature reject election results. His website lists a link to a petition to “decertify and set aside AZ electors (nationwide).”
Fontes couldn’t be more different. He prides himself on everything he did as Maricopa County recorder to improve the state’s election systems. “We created vote centers so that any voter could vote anywhere in Maricopa County, which was huge. Not just your assigned polling place,” Fontes said as he ticked off the reforms he helped put in place. “We created a ballot tracking system … where you get push notifications via text or email, first when your ballot is being prepared, then when it got mailed to you. You’d get another notice when it went back to the elections department, sort of as a receipt. And then you’ve got another notice when your ballot was signature verified and sent to be tabulated. It’s a really, really popular program.”
Fontes wants to help protect the state’s voting rules and expand those protections—moves that could have huge implications not just for 2022 but for 2024. In every single statewide race, the candidates always stress the importance of their race. But in Arizona, those stakes are indeed monumental. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Arizona 49.36 percent to 49.06 percent. It was the first time a Democrat carried Arizona since Bill Clinton in 1996. The state’s 11 electoral votes helped put Biden over the finish line.
Arizona was also one of the major battlegrounds where Trump and his allies cast doubt about the election results. The state may have two Democratic senators (even if snarky Democrats like to question whether Senator Kyrsten Sinema really is one of them). But it could easily elect yet another Republican governor and install other election officials, Finchem chief among them, who would be happy to do whatever Donald Trump wants them to do in relation to the next election.
Fontes likes to stress that that isn’t him. When Fontes was up for reelection, he notes, he didn’t contest the results after he lost, he just helped conduct the election. “I was the guy that was counting the ballots. It was my election. It was my job,” Fontes said.
He says that Biden’s presidency has been one of the most successful of any president this far into their term in office. And he’s adamant that 2022 doesn’t have to be a bad year for Democrats, thanks, in part, to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade. “I had a feeling the minute that Alito draft of the Dobbs decision hit the floor and folks heard about it, I knew that the narrative was going to shift. And it’s a little slower than anticipated, but people who think this is going to be a bad year for Democrats aren’t paying attention,” Fontes said. He is pro-choice, while Finchem is not.
Fontes likes to always tie things back to the differences between himself and Finchem. “He’s a fascist. And he was one of the planners and was present at the January 6 insurrection,” Fontes said. “Contrast that against the guy who opened up voting access in unprecedented ways in the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the country. A Marine Corps veteran who is so faithful to calling balls and strikes that I administered my own electoral defeat with a smile on my face.”
There’s essentially no public polling so far on the general election matchup of the secretary of state race. But looking back to 2018, when now–Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs ran for secretary of state, she beat Republican nominee Steve Gaynor by just 20,000 votes out of over two million. This election is poised to be just as close, if not closer. So Fontes is stressing the urgency of this race. He argues that Finchem and his supporters who want to defy American democracy know that if they want to be successful, they have to act quickly.
“The white nationalist fascism cannot survive the popular vote,” Fontes said. “So they have to destroy the mechanisms of democracy in order to be able to push their political agenda because their political agenda is unpopular.”
Fontes is deadly serious about what the consequences of the Arizona secretary of state race could have on the country overall. But he’s also optimistic that the Trumpian “fever” is going to eventually break. Depending on the outcome of the secretary of state race, that could either be a very accurate prediction or way off.