Sep 23, 2022 - Politics

Finchem, Fontes face off in testy secretary of state debate

 A screenshot of Mark Finchem and Adrian Fontes debating
Screenshot of yesterday's Clean Elections debate between Republican Mark Finchem, left, and Democrat Adrian Fontes.

Criticism of Republican Mark Finchem's conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and Democrat Adrian Fontes' tenure as Maricopa County's top election official took center stage as the two faced off Thursday in a testy debate for secretary of state.

Why it matters: The secretary of state's primary responsibility is serving as Arizona's top election official.

  • They are responsible for certifying election results, a normally ministerial duty that has become more prominent in the wake of the false claims about widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
  • The secretary of state is also first in the line of succession for governor.
  • Finchem and Fontes spent most of the 30-minute debate touting their credentials and their opponents' supposed shortcomings.

What Fontes said: He used much of his time bashing Finchem for his false assertions that the 2020 election was rigged against former President Donald Trump, his presence at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack and his proposals to set aside election results in multiple counties over baseless and unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

  • He noted that Finchem, a state representative who was first elected in 2014, introduced legislation that would have "set aside" election results in Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties and decertify Arizona's electoral votes for President Biden.
  • He also criticized Finchem for advocating for an end to early voting in Arizona, though only the legislature, not the secretary of state, could impose that policy.
  • Fontes cast the race as a decision "between community building and stability, or conspiracy theories and cantankerousness. It is a choice … between votes for everyone who is eligible, or violence and attendance and riots. It's a decision between the law as it actually ought to apply and really is, or lies, things that are made up."

What Finchem said: He criticized Fontes for missteps during his tenure as Maricopa County recorder, from 2017 to 2020.

  • The 2018 primary, Fontes' first as recorder, was plagued with problems, including 62 polling places not opening on time, broken check-in machines and printers running out of ink.
  • He also accused Fontes of making up laws, noting that a court blocked his plan to automatically send early ballots to all eligible Maricopa County voters for the Democratic presidential preference election in 2020.
  • "We are looking at an individual who was given the boot. He was fired by the taxpayers, fired by the voters because of incompetence, misfeasance, malfeasance, the inability to hold an election in predictable manner," Finchem said, referencing Fontes' defeat in his 2020 re-election.

Finchem said he wanted to set aside the election results in Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties because they were "irredeemably compromised."

  • There has been no evidence of widespread fraud or other problems anywhere in Arizona that would have affected the outcome of the 2020 election.

Yes, but: The case against two women who pleaded guilty to ballot harvesting charges in Yuma County stemmed from the 2020 primary, not the general election.

  • Finchem also cited the widely discredited "2000 Mules" movie, which made unproven assertions about widespread ballot harvesting in the 2020 election.

Of note: Even if a ballot is illegally harvested, that in no way indicates that it wasn't otherwise cast legitimately. Election officials use voters' signatures to verify their identities before opening the envelopes that contain their early ballots.

  • The Yuma County cases involved only a small number of ballots.

Meanwhile: Fontes defended his attempt to send early ballots to everyone for the presidential primary, not just voters who had requested them, on the grounds that many voters were afraid to go out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • He asserted that he had the legal authority to send those ballots, though the courts disagreed.
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