Voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County gave Donald Trump his largest vote total of any county in the 2016 election, earning the title of the “Trumpiest” county in America.
So when the Democratic nominees for U.S. Senate and secretary of state won the county—the largest in the state and fourth most-populous in the country—in the 2018 midterms, local and state Republican officials were in a state of disbelief.
Cries of voter fraud and improper handling of ballots quickly converged on Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, who was elected in 2016 and has authority over all of the county’s election-related matters. Protesters gathered outside his office, calling for his resignation, and the chairman of the county board of supervisors publicly threatened to curb Fontes’ oversight of future elections.
Maricopa voters did experience long in-person lines on Election Day and their ballots did take several weeks to count. But that happens every election cycle, both in the county and across the state. One new factor with the 2018 races is that, for the first time in half a century, the recorder’s office is now occupied by a Democrat.
“It’s happening as Democrats have been winning Maricopa County for the first time,” Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple Arizona campaigns, told TPM. “[Sen.-elect] Kyrsten [Sinema] and all the Democrats who won won Maricopa County, which was totally unthinkable like four, six years ago.”
“I think there’s a lot of hot air being thrown around right now,” Barr added. “I don’t think Fontes has in any way stepped outside the legal boundaries and parameters that already apply to his job. I really think this is just Republicans being upset that they lost.”
Steve Chucri, chairman and one of four Republicans on the five-person Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, has denied allegations that he’s acting out of partisanship. Though he told a local Arizona station last week that he was considering making changes to Fontes’ role, either by working with the GOP-led legislature or with consultation from a local elections attorney, Chucri has since claimed he’s just trying to alleviate persistent problems with voting in the county.
“This isn’t about being partisan,” Chucri said at a Monday board meeting, according to Arizona Capitol Reports. “For the five of us that sit on this dais, we came to Maricopa County with a mindset of, ‘How can we be the best at what we do? How can we be the Amazon of government?’”
Fields Moseley, communications director for the board, subsequently confirmed to TPM via email that the board still “might consider changes to the relationship with the Recorder,” citing concerns that “there have been too many issues that may have disenfranchised voters.”
In a Tuesday phone interview with TPM, Fontes said that is exactly what he came into office to alleviate.
Most counties in the state only permit the recorder to handle early voting and voter registration, while a director appointed by the county board handles Election Day. But a 1955 agreement with the Maricopa Board of Supervisors gave the county recorder’s office the authority to oversee most election duties.
“The arrangement that’s in place now has been in place for 60 years and I think it’s going pretty well,” Fontes told TPM. “That’s evidenced by [the fact that] we had 65 percent turnout compared to four years ago when it was somewhere in the 40s. This was the biggest election ever in Maricopa County with the exception of the 2016 presidential primary.”
Fontes repeatedly insisted he was “not interested in the politics” of the situation, but he acknowledged that he’s been a target of criticism since taking office.
“I was surprised that I didn’t get contacted directly first,” he said of the board floating changes to his role. “That was unexpected. But look, there were attempts to remove the elections department from my office when I first got elected, there was a bill introduced in the state legislature in the recent session to the same effect, and now this is happening.”
Perhaps the clearest indicator that some of the antipathy directed at Fontes has partisan roots is that his Republican predecessor, Helen Purcell, did not face the same threats to her authority during her 30-year tenure in office.
During the March 2016 presidential primary in Arizona, the number of polling places was slashed from 200 to 60, causing massive lines that prompted an estimated 100,000 frustrated people to walk away without casting votes.
Purcell apologized amid a public outcry, citing cuts to state election funding. She noted that the county board had approved her plan to have only 60 sites. Though the fiasco was seen as later contributing to Purcell’s narrow loss to Fontes in the 2016 general election, the board never suggested curtailing her election oversight in response.
Fontes faced stronger headwinds from the start. In March 2017, shortly after he took office, a former Republican secretary of state wrote to the board suggesting he become county elections director and assume Fontes’ duties.
Criticism of the Democratic official escalated after the August 2018 primaries, when dozens of Maricopa County polling locations failed to open on time. It reached a fever pitch in the wake of the general election. Arizona’s notoriously complex system for verifying votes, unusually heavy reliance on early voting, and outdated equipment led to the long lines and slow ballot counting that Maricopa County is accustomed to seeing.
The Arizona Republican Party launched an “independent audit” into Fontes’ office for the way he oversaw the election. State GOP chairman Jonathan Lines said Fontes’ decision to open additional emergency voting centers—where under 3,000 individuals unable to cast in-person ballots on Election Day voted—rendered him unable to “be trusted to administer elections in Arizona.”
Despite these tensions, not all state political observers think Fontes’ authority is at risk.
“For the county board up until now, when there are problems on Election Day— as we have every single Election Day—they’re able to point to the recorder as the one to blame,” Joel Edman, director of the progressive Arizona Advocacy Network, told TPM.
“So I wonder if they’ll think about that and say, hmm, I don’t really want my phones to be blowing up with press calls come Election Day if something goes wrong,” Edman said.
As for Fontes, he said he just wants to “do the job he was elected to do.”
“I’m a veteran of the United States Marines Corps; I won’t shy away from a fight,” Fontes said. “But it’s got to be an appropriate fight and it’s got to be a fight that’s worthwhile. My fight is against disinformation, it’s against voter suppression.”
“We’ve opened up the doors to the elections department and its processes in a way that’s not been done before,” he continued. “So in that regard we’re winning that fight.”