Let My People Vote: Adrian Fontes' Fight to Fix Maricopa County’s Broken Election System

Let My People Vote: Adrian Fontes' Fight to Fix Maricopa County’s Broken Election System
Graham Smith
After he’d been in office for just a little over a month, Adrian Fontes learned about the boxes.

For more than a decade, Arizona has required anyone who wants to register to vote to prove that they’re a citizen. But every year, thousands of people overlook that section of the voter registration form, or don’t have the right documents handy. In theory, they’re supposed to get a letter reminding them to send in proof; in reality, that letter often ends up in the trash. Or at the last apartment complex where they lived. Or under a pile of bills.

The rejected forms piled up at the Maricopa County Recorder’s tabulation center on South Third Avenue, a bleak, beige warehouse located across the street from a power plant and next to the railroad tracks. For years, the forms were shoved into cardboard boxes that sagged and cracked with their weight and had to be held together with masking tape, and then were promptly forgotten. By late February 2017, no one knew exactly how many failed voter registration applications were sitting in the waist-high stacks of boxes scrawled with the word “REJECTED,” though employees would later put the total count at close to 100,000.

But, in most cases, the county recorder’s office didn’t need those people to prove that they were citizens. The staff simply could have checked with the Motor Vehicle Department, which verifies people’s citizenship status when they apply for a driver’s license. A quick search of the MVD’s database — which the county recorder’s office has access to — would have answered the question.

Fontes, a brash, outspoken attorney who took over the top elections job in January 2017, immediately told his staff to start opening up the boxes. If the database showed that the person who had filled out the form was a citizen, he told them, he wanted them registered to vote.

From his perspective, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. He’d been elected because he’d promised to clean up the office, which had recently become the subject of a Department of Justice investigation and was being sued by multiple groups alleging widespread voter suppression.

On the campaign trail, his pitch had been simple: He would protect your right to vote. And it had turned out to be compelling enough for conservative Maricopa County to make him the first Democrat to hold the job in nearly 50 years, and the first Latino countywide elected official of all time.

As soon as Fontes started talking about his plans to register thousands of voters who’d been disenfranchised on a technicality, though, Republicans got alarmed. Fontes was overstepping his authority, they argued. He wasn’t going by the manual. Former Arizona Republican Party chairman Randy Pullen, who’d backed the state’s restrictive voter identification law, groused to the Arizona Republic: “If they want to vote, then they can provide the correct information.”

“I don’t see why there’s people out there trying to make it harder for eligible U.S. citizens to vote."

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Fontes has no patience for that kind of argument. The 47-year-old county recorder — who moonlights as a mariachi, once got kicked out of a women’s volleyball game for heckling the referee, and tends to speak with considerably more candor than you’d expect from a public official — is nothing if not passionate about letting people vote.

Nearly a year later, sitting on the red velvet couch at Jobot Coffee downtown in his typical uniform of a blazer, cowboy boots, and jeans, it’s clear that he’s no less fired up about the long-forgotten voter registration forms, which, as of press time, are still being processed one by one.

“I don’t see why there’s people out there trying to make it harder for eligible U.S. citizens to vote,” he says, his voice increasing by several decibels as he suddenly sits up straight in his seat. “I don’t see any security, moral, or ethical reason why you would try to make it harder for an eligible U.S. citizen to vote than you actually have to.”

He drums on the couch after each word to underscore the point.

“I mean, this is a fundamental right. The government should not be getting in the way of this fundamental right. The government should be making it as easy as possible for eligible U.S. citizens to vote.”

He’s getting even louder now, the words coming out like he’s standing in front of a rally with thousands of people, not sitting in Jobot, where skinny kids with blunt bangs and glasses stare dead-eyed into their MacBooks.

“To put up barriers for no good reason is just nonsensical. To put up barriers for made-up reasons is IMMORAL and UN-AMERICAN. It just goes BEYOND nonsensical.”

Then he takes a breath.

“Sorry, I get excited about that. It just ... it just blows my mind.”

click to enlarge Before running for office, Adrian Fontes worked as a lawyer and moonlighted as a mariachi. - AARON ABBOTT
Before running for office, Adrian Fontes worked as a lawyer and moonlighted as a mariachi.
Aaron Abbott
The story of how Adrian Fontes got to be so passionate about voting rights starts on March 22, 2016. He’d just gotten back from a week and a half in Greece, which he’d mostly spent touring museums, and which had put him in a rapturous state of mind about democracy. He recalls feeling “high as a kite” on the flight back, his enthusiasm still undimmed hours later when the plane finally touched down in Phoenix.

The day after his return was the 2016 presidential primary — or, as Arizona likes to call it, the Presidential Preference Election. Bernie Sanders was facing Hillary Clinton, while a lengthy list of candidates competed on the Republican ticket.

Fontes, a Sanders supporter, didn’t have any appointments at his law firm that day and had already voted by mail. He decided to stop into the campaign headquarters and see if they needed any help manning the phones.

They did. By about 10 a.m., the calls were already coming in: The lines to vote were getting longer and longer. People were giving up and leaving so that they wouldn’t be late for work. Others patiently waited in the blazing Arizona sun for hours before they could cast their ballots. They pulled out umbrellas and changed into comfortable shoes, and tapped at their phones until their batteries started to die. Then they stood still and stared straight ahead, arms crossed, as toddlers squirmed and babies yowled and the lines slowly shuffled forward.

The county recorder at the time, Helen Purcell, had opened up only 60 polling locations. During the 2008 presidential primary, there had been more than 400. While the predominantly white suburb of Cave Creek had one polling place for each 8,500 residents, Phoenix only had one for every 108,000 residents.

By middle of the afternoon, Fontes had given at least $70 to campaign volunteers from the Sanders campaign, who ran out to buy Cheez-its and water bottles so that they could hand them out to the voters lined up outside the Salvation Army downtown. Meanwhile, people had started leaving work and heading to the polls. Traffic backed up for miles as they circled around trying to find space in the overflowing parking lots so that they could get in line.

Campaign volunteers urged everyone to stay in line. But one by one, people who’d showed up to vote gave up and walked away.

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Just before sunset, Fontes left the campaign office and headed to Memorial Presbyterian Church at Thomas Road and 42nd Street, on a rutted stretch of road lined with $3 car washes, drive-thru fast food places, shabby two-story apartment complexes, and scraggly untrimmed palms. Police lights were flashing outside, and the line of people waiting to vote wrapped around the low-slung brick building.

The sky turned dark and a full moon rose. Campaign volunteers urged everyone to stay in line. But one by one, people who’d showed up to vote gave up and walked away. They had no one to put their kids to bed. They’d get fired if they showed late for their second or third jobs. They didn’t have the physical stamina to stand any longer.

Previously, Fontes hadn’t considered voter suppression to be a major concern. It wasn’t like he wasn’t aware that problems existed — they had just felt somewhat distant up until that Tuesday. That day, he recalls, “I had a physical pain in my gut seeing that happen, and being helpless to stop it.”

At 7 p.m., the polls officially were scheduled to close, but hundreds of people were still in line. Fontes and a couple of friends headed to The Vig on Fillmore to grab cocktails and watch the results come in. By the time he got home around midnight, the last woman who’d been waiting outside the Salvation Army had just cast her vote, and Fontes’ mind was made up. He went down to the Democratic Party headquarters the next morning and told them that he planned to run for Purcell’s seat.

On paper, he had a solid biography for an aspiring politician. The father of three was born and raised in Nogales, Arizona, where his Mexican-American family could trace their roots back to the 17th century and his grandfather had once served as mayor. His mother worked as a teacher and his father as a civil engineer, helping to build I-19 between Tucson and Nogales. At 22, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent four years on active duty. Afterwards, he returned to Arizona State University and completed his bachelor’s degree.

After graduating from ASU, he went on to law school at the University of Denver, and worked as a prosecutor in the Denver District Attorney’s Office before returning to Arizona in 2002. He accepted a job handling felony crimes at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, then moved up to the foreign prosecution unit at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office less than a year later.

In 2005, he left to go into private practice. He and his wife, Mona, had also opened their own small business: Bodega 420, a neighborhood grocery store and community gathering spot at 420 East Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix that closed in 2014.

Though Fontes had briefly been a registered Republican in Yuma County while in the Marine Corps, he’d since switched parties and become involved with Democratic politics, at one point filing paperwork to run for the state legislature. His name was reasonably well-known in progressive circles. But he didn’t expect to win the county recorder’s race.

“I didn’t have a lot of support from the party old-timers because I hadn’t paid my dues, and I don’t think I was making the right phone calls at the right times,” he explains. “There’s a real recipe to doing this that the old guard expects.”

Most of the people who signed up to work on his campaign didn’t expect to win, either. He was a Democrat in a county run by Republicans. He didn’t have a lot of money to spend. And he was Latino.

“The reality is you have a large segment of the population that sees the name Fontes and gets turned off by that,” Tim Castro, his former campaign manager, points out.

But bad press kept following Helen Purcell. The Democratic National Committee and a handful of other groups sued Maricopa County, claiming widespread voter disenfranchisement. Lawmakers requested federal oversight of Arizona’s elections. The Department of Justice opened an investigation.

When November finally rolled around, Fontes won by just 14,828 votes — 1.06 percent. The margin was so close that he didn’t actually believe it until Purcell conceded, nearly a week after the election.

click to enlarge Some voters waited in line for up to five hours during the 2016 presidential preference election. - MIRIAM WASSER
Some voters waited in line for up to five hours during the 2016 presidential preference election.
Miriam Wasser
In Arizona, the right to vote has never been guaranteed.

That’s not an exaggeration. Arizona is literally the only state whose constitution doesn’t explicitly grant citizens the right to vote.

And for much of the state’s history, voting was reserved for white people only. Native Americans couldn’t vote until 1948. For decades, English literacy tests at the polls — adopted by the state legislature in an attempt to limit what a newspaper editorial referred to as the “the ignorant Mexican vote” — effectively prevented some Latinos from voting. Finally, with the 1975 expansion of the Voting Rights Act, Congress added Arizona to a list of states whose elections required outside oversight due to their tendency to discriminate against nonwhite voters.

But in the mid-2000s, right around the same time that conservatives began to panic about illegal immigration, voting restrictions started showing up again. In 2004, Arizona became one of the first states in the country to require voters to show identification when they cast their ballots. It also became one of only two states that require would-be voters to provide proof of citizenship when they register — despite the fact that noncitizens who sign up to vote already face potential criminal penalties and the risk of deportation.

Both laws were the result of a ballot initiative led by a group called Protect Arizona Now, whose advisory board was chaired by a self-described ethnic separatist. Along with the restrictions on voting, Proposition 200 also included language intended to discourage undocumented immigrants from applying for public benefits. Its most prominent backers were Rusty Childress, the head of a nativist biker gang, and Russell Pearce, who would later go on to sponsor Senate Bill 1070, the state’s infamous “Show Me Your Papers” law.

In theory, Proposition 200 was only intended to prevent people who aren’t U.S. citizens from voting. But this is Arizona, and it can be tough to separate the fear of noncitizens from the fear of Latinos, generally. For some white residents, who’d been noticing the brown-skinned people in line at their polling place, speaking in a language that they couldn’t understand, it was easier to assume that those people had slipped over the border than to come to terms with the fact that the state was changing.

Statistically, Americans are more likely to get hit by lightning than to impersonate someone else at the polls.

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And whether it was aimed at them or not, Latinos were disproportionately likely to be affected by the voter ID law: According to one national study, Americans who identify as Hispanic are twice as likely as Anglos to lack a government-recognized photo ID.

Meanwhile, there’s no evidence to suggest that people are really waiting in line on Election Day just to give someone else’s name and vote under their identity. Statistically, Americans are more likely to get hit by lightning than to impersonate someone else at the polls. And during the peak of a federal crackdown on purported voter fraud in 2005, more people were indicted for violating migratory-bird statutes.

In other words, the problem that voter ID laws attempt to solve is a problem that doesn’t really exist at all.

“What it does do,” says Joel Edman, the executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, “is keep eligible people from voting.”

In 2016, Arizona introduced a new law intended to combat yet another nonexistent form of voter fraud. Previously, Latino advocacy groups had relied heavily on volunteers who would go door-to-door collecting mail-in ballots and delivering them to a polling place. The strategy had helped them gather enough votes to recall state senator Russell Pearce in the wake of SB 1070, and make up for otherwise dismal voter turnout.

There was no proof that so-called “ballot harvesting,” as conservatives disparagingly nicknamed the practice, had ever led to vote tampering. Nonetheless, a Republican majority in the state legislature voted to pass House Bill 2023, making it a felony for anyone other than a family member, caregiver, or postal worker to turn in your ballot.

“When they passed this law, they cited all these nonexistent, made-up examples of ‘voter fraud,’” says Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, a Democrat who is currently running for Secretary of State. “My response to them was, first of all, what you’re describing is already illegal under the current law. If that’s happening, why didn’t you report these cases to the county recorder? So we know that they made it up under their own agenda.”

In addition to these restrictions, Arizona is also one of a handful of states where your ballot doesn’t count if you show up to vote at the wrong precinct. Though federal law requires you be given a provisional ballot — and you might even be in the right legislative district — that ballot won’t count if you’re at the wrong polling place.

This primarily affects working-class voters who want to vote near their jobs, which may be miles from their home precincts. In an analysis that the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office did in 2012, voters with Hispanic surnames were statistically more likely to see their ballot get rejected because they’d gone to the wrong polling place. Montserrat Arredondo, the director for the One Arizona coalition, which aims to improve Latino voter turnout, recalls that during the 2016 elections, one of the most common complaints that she heard was, “Well, I went, and I wasn’t able to vote.”

Meanwhile, year after year, the Republican-controlled state legislature has refused to consider adopting policies that would make it easier for people to vote. For instance, the state doesn’t offer same-day voter registration, which has been proven to increase turnout. A bill on that subject was introduced earlier this year, but has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing. Likewise, bills that would require people to be registered to vote automatically when they apply for or renew a driver’s license have gone nowhere.

But thanks to shifting demographics and the efforts of community activists, Arizona’s electorate is changing. Between 2002 and 2014, the number of Latinos registered to vote in Arizona more than doubled, going from roughly 259,000 to 687,000, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the nonpartisan William C. Velasquez Institute. Turnout still isn’t great, but it’s no longer hard to envision a future where Latinos have the power to swing elections. The only real question is how many more election cycles it will take.

That means that there’s another threat on the horizon as the current ruling class — white Republican lawmakers who ride around Paradise Valley on golf carts, quote Barry Goldwater with wild abandon, and wear bolo ties to disguise their midwestern roots — is forced to confront its impending irrelevance. Rather than allow a new, more representative majority to take over, Arizona could follow the lead of other states that have preserved an outdated power structure through partisan gerrymandering and finding new ways to restrict people’s ability to vote.

“My big fear is that we’ll become like North Carolina,” Joel Edman of the Arizona Advocacy Network says. “I do worry if 2018 goes the way it looks like it’s going to go, the party that’s been in the majority will feel that its power is slipping, and conclude that there’s only one way to hold on.”

click to enlarge Close to 100,000 potential voters ended up in limbo after forgetting to include proof of citizenship with their registration forms. - COURTESY OF THE MARICOPA COUNTY RECORDER’S OFFICE
Close to 100,000 potential voters ended up in limbo after forgetting to include proof of citizenship with their registration forms.
Courtesy of the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office

“Are we live?” Adrian Fontes said to the camera. “Okay. I wanted to directly address some inappropriate and rude comments that I made on Facebook to a Democratic Party candidate for Arizona’s state legislature.”

It was November 1, 2017. Fontes sat at his desk at the county recorder’s office, dressed in a black suit and peach tie. A tiny American flag waved in the background.

A few days beforehand, he’d gotten into an online argument with Nathan Schneider, a Goodyear resident running for the state’s House of Representatives. Schneider had complained that it was hard to find the election date on his mail-in ballot for a proposed school bond override. As their argument escalated, Fontes asked Schneider if his mother was running his campaign. “Go F- yourself,” Fontes added.

Soon enough, his words were on the front page of the Arizona Republic. As Fontes apologized on Facebook Live — to voters, his staff, the county supervisors, and, in fact, everyone but Schneider — the comments started rolling in. “I’m a lifelong Dem,” one said. “You’ll never get my vote again. You’ve made life more difficult for ALL DEMS in Maricopa County. You’ve set us back.”

By the time 2017 came to an end, the controversy had gotten more attention than anything else Fontes had done during his first year in office. One of his first moves had been to create a new outreach team that registers people to vote at cultural events and festivals, with the goal of having 3 million registered voters by 2020. He’d also focused on improving ballot centers, which eliminate the need for voters to show up at a specific precinct and allow them to vote near their job, church, school, or wherever else is convenient.

Old, malfunctioning equipment had contributed to long lines at the ballot centers in 2016, so Fontes’ team overhauled the technology and introduced touchscreen check-ins that would scan voters’ IDs and instantly print out the correct ballot for them. And, in the fall, when mail ballots went out for the school bond overrides, the county recorder’s office had sent out emails with tracking links that let voters follow their ballot like an Amazon package and make sure that it was actually counted, or sign up for text message updates.

All of that was exciting news to a handful of wonky political types, and approximately no one else. As important as it undoubtedly is, the minutiae of how an election actually happens — how the ballots are scanned, the signatures are matched, and the results are tallied — is incredibly boring. It doesn’t make headlines. If everything goes perfectly, you don’t think about it at all.

So it wasn’t a surprise that an ill-advised Facebook comment garnered more interest than the latest innovations in ballot-on-demand technology.

Nor was it a surprise that the Maricopa County Republican Party immediately claimed to be “concerned” about the county recorder’s remarks.

From the start, Fontes has faced opposition from the GOP — in fact, as soon as he took office, Republicans introduced a bill that would have taken away his power to administer elections. More recently, another bill that would hand over some of his authority to the county supervisors — championed by Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman Chris Herring — passed out of the Senate Government Committee on a party-line vote.

"It’s obvious he had an agenda that was his own without even knowing the position, with no prior experience, and he went in and started making drastic changes.”

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In September, Timothy Schwartz, a member of the Arizona Republican Party’s executive committee, wrote to the Board of Supervisors requesting that Fontes be removed from his position or at least placed on a very short leash.

“If you have no experience coming into a high-level job, you take your time to get to know the ropes, get to know the people, let the people have a chance to know you,” Schwartz told me a few months later. “He did none of that. It’s obvious he had an agenda that was his own without even knowing the position, with no prior experience, and he went in and started making drastic changes.”

In particular, Schwartz pointed to the fact that although Helen Purcell was a Republican, her second-in-command, Karen Osborne, was a Democrat. That bipartisan balance was good for accountability, he believed. But when Osborne retired, Fontes hired Rey Valenzuela — a Democrat as well as a 26-year veteran of the department — to fill her role as elections director, meaning that the office is now led by two Democrats.

“A Democrat saying, ‘I’m not going to have a Republican looking over my shoulder,’ that was the first thing that raised eyebrows,” Schwartz recalled.

The main reason why he doesn’t trust the new county recorder, though, veers into the realm of conspiracy theories: He believes that Fontes’ campaign was funded by George Soros, who “got his money by taking down governments.”

“Adrian Fontes does not deserve the office he holds,” Schwartz argued. “He got it through dirty money. Once he got it, he’s been subverting the system. He’s making radical changes to a system that’s not broken, and that’s not acceptable.”

There’s no evidence to support the claim that Soros contributed to Fontes’ campaign — though the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist did get involved in other countywide races during the 2016 election cycle. But this kind of paranoia has dogged Fontes’ efforts to improve the county’s outdated systems.

His push to expand opportunities for early voting has repeatedly been interpreted by Republicans as an attempt to undercut the state’s voter ID law, since voters who submit mail-in ballots don’t have to provide identification. (They do, however, have their signatures analyzed by FBI-trained experts, which is widely agreed to be a more effective way of preventing voter impersonation.)

“This is what Fontes did in the jurisdictional elections and we ABSOLUTELY DO NOT WANT THIS,” Gina Swoboda, who runs a site called Arizona Election Integrity, warned in a recent call-to-action.

The phrase “one-termer” comes up frequently in Republican circles, and Fontes is well aware that there are plenty of people who’d like to see him fail. “They know if we do a good job, then there’s a likelihood that if I run again, I’ll win,” he says. “And they don’t necessarily want a Democrat to win. But, at the same time, they want the election system to get better. And I know they do, because a lot of them voted for me.”

A few blocks away, Paul Penzone, the only other Democrat elected to countywide office, has deliberately kept a low profile since he replaced former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Though it’s impossible for anyone inhabiting that role to avoid all controversy, Penzone has tried his best to be as boring as possible: The Arizona Republic’s recap of his first year in office highlighted the fact that he’d installed brown carpeting, replacing the red shag that Arpaio had favored.

By contrast, Fontes clearly struggles with having to play a staid county official. Being Adrian Fontes, County Recorder, is somewhat at odds with being Adrian Fontes, Fun Neighborhood Guy, who occasionally gets into debates on Facebook when he’s not deep-frying turkeys or playing the guitar on the back of a golf cart.

“It’s hard,” he says. “I can’t say exactly what’s on my mind anymore, because the public has unreasonable expectations of their politicians.”

The “F-yourself” incident — which he describes has his “little dustup on Facebook,” noting that he didn’t even spell out the word — was a big learning experience, he adds. “It really got a visceral reaction from some folks that was totally unexpected to me. Like, I did not expect that at all, and I was kinda floored.”

Before running for office, Fontes was free to go to Sun Devils games and yell at the players from the sidelines. On Wednesday nights, he’d drink a few beers and tell off-color jokes while he sat outside Bodega 420 and strummed his guitar. (There are probably videos somewhere on the internet that could one day be used against him in an attack ad, he acknowledges.)

Now, he says, “I’m careful about what I do on the weekends. When I go to public events, I just have to look out for those things. And, frankly, I’m not a big fan of that. But I know that my political opponents will capitalize on my missteps for their own political purposes — even though I’m doing a really good job for voters, and even though those things have zero impact on my job and the work that I’m doing.”

Before he’s even finished talking, though, he’s already reconsidering what he just said.

“It’s not unreasonable to ask us to set an example. We are in the public eye, we are leaders. That’s not bad. If I wasn’t willing to shoulder that burden, I probably shouldn’t have ever run. I need to keep improving myself as a public figure, without losing myself in that public figure. Which is really interesting. It’s weird. People ask me how it’s going and, almost always, the first thing out of my mouth is, ‘It’s weird.’”

click to enlarge With more than 2.2 million registered voters, Maricopa County has the power to shape the future of the state — and the country. - RAY STERN
With more than 2.2 million registered voters, Maricopa County has the power to shape the future of the state — and the country.
Ray Stern
In December, before we’d ever sat down for an interview, I saw Adrian Fontes at a backyard concert in Coronado, the haven for Phoenix liberals where we both live. (Full disclosure: I have purchased Girl Scout cookies from his daughters.) A folk rock band was playing behind a bungalow on North Mitchell Street, and the lawn was packed with bearded, flannel-shirted dads who clutched beer cans in one hand and toddlers in the other.

While the musicians took a break, Fontes took over the stage and theatrically presented a trophy in the shape of a golf cart to a man who was inexplicably wearing a kilt and a knit hat with Viking horns. The slightly intoxicated crowd clapped and hollered.

“Right, so, take that moment, and make me the emcee of the whole event, walking down the street and having drinks,” he said when I mentioned it later on. “I’m still going to have fun with my neighbors. But I have a responsibility to be somewhat reserved and very respectful, particularly because of the nature of this office. It’s kind of a nerd office — I can’t go out and be a firebrand like some legislators can.”

“Nerd office” is an accurate description. Say the words “county recorder” to anyone who doesn’t obsessively follow politics and see if they don’t either stare at you blankly, or think you’re talking about the Office of Vital Registration.

But who sits in that office has arguably never been more important. For almost 40 years, elections officials in Arizona had to clear their plans with the Department of Justice because our history of discrimination against minorities made us a covered jurisdiction under the 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act. That all came to an end when the Supreme Court invalidated the coverage formula in 2013. And it’s likely that there wouldn’t have been hours-long lines in March 2016 if Helen Purcell and her staff had been required to prove that their plan to open fewer polling sites wouldn’t negatively affect people of color.

In other words, the people who administer local elections suddenly have a lot more discretion when it comes to making it easier — or harder — for you to vote. That’s no small deal when you’re talking about Maricopa County, which has 2.2 million registered voters — more than the total population of Vermont, Washington, D.C., and Alaska, combined.

It also means that Fontes is certain to face a serious challenge when he’s up for re-election in 2020. “I suspect that the Republicans would put a bullseye on his back, and that they will pour resources into that race,” Mike Schiller, his former deputy campaign manager, says.

Whether he can withstand that challenge will likely depend on how smoothly voting goes during this year’s midterm elections — the first time when the new systems that Fontes has put in place truly will be tested.

Currently, Democrats only need to pick up two seats to regain control of the U.S. Senate, and Arizona is seen as one of the states where that’s most likely to happen in 2018. That means that outside groups will spend the next six months dumping truckloads of cash into Arizona, much of it earmarked for get-out-the-vote efforts. Factor in the surge in liberal activism over the past year and the fact that every statewide office and every seat in Congress is also up for grabs, and it’s safe to say that turnout will be much higher than it has been in the past.

Complicating things further, Congressman Trent Franks resigned unexpectedly in December amid allegations that he’d asked an aide to be a surrogate for his child. That meant that on top of prepping for midterms, the county recorder’s office suddenly had to scramble to get ready for a special election with a hotly contested primary at the end of February.

“If you get anything wrong, any one voter can come out with a compelling enough story that’s gonna really paint it in a bad light."

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And should anything go wrong at the polls this year, it’s safe to assume that voters won’t be too happy with Fontes, whose campaign centered on the idea that the disastrous presidential preference election of March 2016 would have gone a lot differently if he’d been in charge.

Fontes insists there’s no chance that we’ll witness another meltdown. “We’ve done more than just due diligence to ensure against that kind of circumstance,” he says. “I just don’t see it as a realistic possibility.”

But, he acknowledges, “If you get anything wrong, any one voter can come out with a compelling enough story that’s gonna really paint it in a bad light. And that’s okay, because we don’t expect anyone to celebrate our victories. We do expect everyone to blame us for problems. There’s no ticker-tape parade for an election run well — that’s the expectation.”

In any case, re-election isn’t what’s on his mind right now. While he can definitely see himself running for a second term — “to kinda make sure we’ve locked in some of the policy changes and stuff” — he’s not sure if he’ll be interested after that.

He’s got a life outside of politics, he points out. He’s got his three young daughters, his golf cart gang, his mariachi group. He could be making much more money as a lawyer working in private practice, and enjoying the kind of anonymity where you can write more or less whatever you want on Facebook and no one really cares how many drinks you have at Short Leash Hotdogs’ annual Pinewood Derby. Plus, having an important-sounding title really doesn’t matter to him, he claims.

“I don’t need this to fulfill some kind of inner-ego thing,” he says. “I had a big enough ego before I got into politics.”

Besides, certain aspects of the job are getting him down. “Politics is worse than people think,” he observes one afternoon at Jobot. “The pettiness, the arrogance …”

He trails off. It’s clear that he could name names, maybe even wants to, but knows better than to vent to a reporter. Getting into a public spat won’t help him to accomplish what he wants to accomplish — which is to get every single eligible person in the county to show up to vote. (Or, more realistically, as many of them as possible.)

“Sometimes, people don’t want anything other than their agenda to be moving forward,” he finally says. “And if their agenda happens to be a partisan one that doesn’t have room for you because you have a D behind your name, then they’ll throw roadblocks up, even though they know better. And that’s really sad. It’s really sad because it’s a really small way to be.”

In one area, at least, he hasn’t hit any major roadblocks: So far, no one’s been able to stop him from tracking down the people whose voter registration forms were trapped inside dusty boxes for years.

All told, the boxes turned out to contain roughly 96,000 forms. So far, the temporary staffers who were hired for the project have found that 44,000 of those people had already filled out the form again and successfully signed up to vote. Another 2,413 — all eligible citizens who’d simply forgotten to include proof — have been registered for the first time.

In the scheme of things, it’s a fairly small number. But the fact that there was any question at all about whether those 2,413 individuals should be added to the voter rolls is telling, as is the anxiety that Fontes’ mere presence in the office has provoked.

Both are proof that a certain segment of the population still feels threatened by a basic and yet radical idea. That idea, incidentally, is the same one this country was founded on: People should have the chance to vote.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.