Jurisprudence

The Most Worrisome Election This Cycle

The Arizona secretary of state race is alarming for what it portends could happen next.

Finchem wears a cowboy hat and mustache.
Arizona Republican candidate for secretary of state Mark Finchem arrives for a campaign event on Sunday in Tucson, Arizona. John Moore/Getty Images

Less than one week before Election Day, former President Barack Obama—not generally considered one to spread sky-is-falling resistance grift—nonetheless issued a dire warning while campaigning in Arizona. “Democracy as we know it may not survive in Arizona,” Obama told the crowd, warning about what would happen if Republicans win the state on Tuesday. “That’s not an exaggeration. That is a fact.”

Left not explicitly said, but implied by the rest of Obama’s remarks, was the idea that Arizona, which went for President Joe Biden by the smallest number of votes of any state in the country in 2020, could very likely be ground zero for the fate of democracy in America this week. The radicalization of the local Republican party in the state that only recently turned purple makes Arizona the likeliest place for Jan. 6-style post-election violence and other efforts to overturn the results of this midterms election. If the Republican candidates win cleanly, then as elected officials they will lay the groundwork for easy theft of the next election, should it be necessary.

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Democrats are aware of the stakes for races up and down the ballot in the state. The first name Obama checked in his speech last week was Adrian Fontes, the candidate for secretary of state, a low-profile position in past years that has taken on exceeding significance across the country in 2022.

Fontes, the top official for election administration in Maricopa County, is running against perhaps the most radical election-denying candidate in the country, Mark Finchem. A state House representative from the border county Pima, Finchem has spewed antisemitic tropes about “the Soros press,” participated in QAnon rallies, and attended the Jan. 6 insurrection. He was also one of the leading figures to endorse last year’s misbegotten Arizona election audit that attempted to discredit the results of the 2020 race. Likely thanks to this, he quickly won Donald Trump’s endorsement for secretary of state, and has not only attempted to decertify the 2020 election, he has also sought to move the state to a purely manual count of ballots, which a court found would lead to a chaotic and incomplete count. If he wins the race, Finchem will have the power to refuse to certify the winner in 2024 and to decertify the state’s voting machines ahead of that race, forcing that impossible-to-conduct manual count.

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Fontes has been unsparing of the danger that Finchem poses, describing the militia member as capable of fomenting civil war. “This is the inflection point that will determine whether or not we move forward,” Fontes told a group of students at an Arizona State University forum last month. “And those Oathkeepers of which [Finchem’s] been a member since 2014, they call for civil war. He’s been calling for people to stockpile weapons and ammunition. And my question to him is which Americans are you planning on killing first in this civil war Mr. Finchem?”

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Like Obama’s description that the race could be a preview of the end of democracy, this may sound like overheated campaign rhetoric. But just like the former president, Fontes, a former Marine, does not have a reputation for exaggeration. I’ve been watching him as he has been issuing these sorts of warning since at least last year—and based on our conversations, it seems to me that he clearly believes it.

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“This isn’t a game. And this isn’t just rhetorical pugilism, this is real and the only thing that I regret is that I haven’t been able to sound this clarion call loud enough for more people to pay close enough attention to the absolute threat that this person presents not just to the state of Arizona, but to the survival of our republic,” Fontes told me last month. “If he wins this thing, he will become a national leader of a white nationalist uprising, there’s no question in my mind.”

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Finchem’s radicalism has cost him endorsements from the non-MAGA wing of the GOP. National Republican figures like Liz Cheney and some state Republicans have endorsed Fontes, who also pointed to the fact that departing Republican Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Rusty Bowers, described Finchem as “a dangerous man.” But the race has been historically low-profile—normally no one really needs to think that hard about who should be secretary of state. If voters don’t cast votes in downballot races, Finchem could eke out a victory. Earlier this year he held steady leads over Fontes, though in recent polling the Democrat has pulled ahead. Finchem, for his part, has barely been campaigning, spending his time on fundraising emails and appearing at out-of-state stop-the-steal forums, seemingly hoping that the low-key nature of the contest in past years and the success of other Republicans on the ticket will help him across the finish line.

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It’s not surprising that Arizona would be the breeding ground for a politician like Finchem. The state Republican party has been in the midst of a far-right lurch since shortly after Donald Trump’s election, including very concerted efforts by national MAGA groups—at least one based in Arizona—to ensure that radicals run the state party apparatus, which has the side benefit of making it more likely that they are elected in every primary.

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Fontes has personal experience with watching Republican extremists in the state try to take over elections. In 2020, when Fontes was the election administrator in the state’s largest county, Maricopa County, the counting site was invaded overnight by men carrying long guns being rallied by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “Election officials across the country have been threatened with death, have been called treasonous and have been made to feel insecure and often in their own homes,” Fontes told me when we discussed the incident during an interview last year. He described his staff at the time as having been “terrorized” by “seditionists” armed with semi-automatic weapons. It does seem a wonder that there wasn’t any violence. The protests eventually disbanded without any violence, but Arizona became ground zero for conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

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There was a similar environment at last year’s election audit, which was conducted by the partisan and since disbanded conspiracy theorist-led firm, Cyber Ninjas, and sought to discredit the results of the 2020 election. At the audit site, election denialists were carrying guns, holding up signs about “treasonous” local Republican election officials who refused to invalidate the 2020 election, and discussing how political enemies needed to be shipped to Guantanamo Bay.

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By the time that election audit happened, Fontes was no longer the recorder for Maricopa County—he’d been defeated by a Republican, Stephen Richer, who upheld the validity of the 2020 election, and then immediately became the target of election conspiracists for doing so. Last year, Richer described for me the effect this language was having on the staff he had taken over from Fontes, by comparing it to how journalists have been treated during the Trump years.

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“You guys are often dehumanized as a mass entity. Sometimes when you go to events you’re pushed, sometimes you’re yelled at, because over the past ten years, there’s sort of been this you’re not a human, you’re a journalist, which is this sort of quasi-human creature,” Richer said to me at the time of the fallout from the 2020 election. “Unfortunately, I think the way in which the elections department has been treated has been somewhat similar.”

Richer, through his office, declined to talk to me again about this upcoming election, or Finchem.

Meanwhile, the threats of election-related violence have continued into this year. Armed men in tactical gear have been seen outside of ballot drop boxes, apparently stoked by false conspiracy theories about ballot-harvesting “mules.” Some have even reportedly tailed voters, following them after they’ve left polling sites. This obvious voter intimidation was explicitly endorsed by Finchem, who after these reports tweeted “WATCH ALL DROP BOXES. PERIOD. SAVE THE REPUBLIC.”

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There are election-denying figures running for top election administration jobs throughout the country. But Arizona is work paying attention to because Finchem—and the rest of his state cohort—seems to be perhaps the ones with the best chance at victory.

In the governor’s race, former local news host Kari Lake has held a steady, but slim, lead in polls over her opponent, the current secretary of state Katie Hobbs. Lake joined the failed lawsuit Finchem brought to try to decertify every voting machine in the state and force the state to conduct hand counts in every election. She also won the hearty endorsement of Trump, who has encouraged other candidates to be more like “Kari,” because “if they say, ‘How is your family?’ she says, ‘The election was rigged and stolen.’” In a recent campaign event with Steve Bannon, Lake even compared the white nationalist to George Washington.

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Meanwhile, the Republican candidate for attorney general, Abe Hamadeh, also won Bannon’s backing. He has suggested that if he wins, he will use the power of his office to investigate the last election, going as far as promising a “day of reckoning,” for “those who worked to rob President Trump” of victory in the 2020 election, as the Washington Post reported.

In one of the final polls, Hamadeh led his Democratic opponent, Kris Mayes, by less than two points. In that same poll, Fontes led Finchem by nearly the exact same margin. However, a Monday poll showed Finchem back in the lead.

If Fontes loses the race, it will almost certainly mean a clean sweep of election deniers in the top three executive positions in perhaps the most critical swing state in 2024. These officials could set up criminal investigations of vote counters, claim to throw out the 2020 outcome, dismantle the 2024 vote count itself, or refuse to certify a Democratic victor if the count is allowed to move forward. No wonder Obama thinks the sky might be falling.

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