Adrian sat down with TIME to discuss the critical work he and several other candidates are doing right now to save our democracy. Serving as a bulwark between the will of the voters and conspiracy theorists running for critical election administration positions across the country, TIME dubbed these candidates the Defenders.
The fate of the free world is on the ballot this November. Adrian Fontes and candidates running against election deniers are our frontline defense to protect our fair and free elections and ensure our democracy thrives. But they can’t do it alone. What follows is the first part of the Times article. Click here to read the entire article.
Nobody recognizes Adrian Fontes when he walks into a Phoenix lunch spot near his office. The former recorder of Maricopa County looks like any other Arizona dad: a neat beard, a blue button-down, the kind of guy you’d see cheering on the sidelines at one of his girls’ softball games. He orders a burger with Swiss cheese and bacon (no bun) and launches into a monologue about his work to increase election transparency, like implementing a text-messaging system to inform voters when their ballots were received and their votes have been counted.
Fontes, 52, is a sixth-generation Mexican American who can trace his Arizona ancestry back to 1695. One of his earliest memories is learning to play “You’re a Grand Old Flag” on the autoharp for the 1976 Bicentennial. He enlisted in the Marines at 22, “willing to die for this country,” he says. But Fontes doesn’t think he’s ever taken on a greater patriotic duty than the one he’s attempting right now. “This is my first time being a high-profile candidate in a nationally important race,” he says, pouring hot sauce on his french fries. “Where the stakes are literally the fate of the free world.”
High-profile is a bit of a stretch. Fontes is running for Arizona secretary of state, a typically anonymous role that oversees the tedious details of election administration: training poll workers, managing the statewide voter-registration database, verifying the accuracy of voting machines, and certifying election results. But in 2022, the job has taken on an outsize importance. Fontes’ opponent, Republican Mark Finchem, is an election denier: an avid promoter of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread voter fraud. He is one of many Republicans running to oversee America’s next elections while denying the legitimacy of the last one.
If any of these candidates win, experts warn, they would possess a broad array of powers to undermine future elections if they don’t like the results. A rogue election official could attempt to prematurely stop the counting of ballots, pervert the Electoral College process, turn over the outcome of the election to partisan state legislators, or simply refuse to certify the result, all while publicly sowing doubt about the validity of the contest. It could present an existential test for American democracy. “If you can’t have trusted, neutral people running our elections, then you don’t really have free and fair elections,” says Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute. “Then we’re not a functioning democracy anymore.”
Fontes is part of a loose brigade of unassuming public servants on the front lines of the fight to protect America’s election system from the Trump allies out to disrupt it. They’re paper pushers and bureaucrats, not inspiring orators or ingenious policymakers or even particularly good politicians. (If they were more charismatic, they might have picked a different line of work than election administration.) They are Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, running for offices as big as governor and as small as county clerk. Many have met only in passing, if at all. They have little in common except a collective purpose: each of them ran this year for an election-oversight position against an opponent who embraces Trump’s “Big Lie.” Fontes calls the group the “most odd mutual support organization in the world.” You could call them the Defenders: the people running to serve as the bulwark between the will of the voters and the conspiracy theorists willing to subvert it.