Adrian Fontes & Stephen Richer, once political foes, talked potential Arizona election reforms
In a nondescript bar at the end of an alley in downtown Phoenix, the state’s most prominent election officials — and former political opponents — met Wednesday night to trade lighthearted jabs and ideas about how to improve Arizona’s election processes.
Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, and Republican Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer discussed how to reform the state’s election system, amid rising public and political backlash over its speed and accuracy — much of which has been spread via conspiracy theories from losing candidates.
Should Arizona eliminate late early ballots?
Richer, who has weathered endless accusations of election fraud as the most visible leader of the state’s most populous county, released a set of proposed reforms last month that included shortening the deadline for mail-in-ballots. Known as “late earlies,” the submissions are the primary reason that election results in Arizona take more than a week to be finalized.
Mail-in ballots have a longer and more complicated approval process than in-person ballots, and a combination of voter tardiness, increased voter participation and recent rhetoric from Republican candidates has led to a surplus of late submissions for election workers to deal with on Election Day.
In Maricopa County alone, there were over 290,000 late earlies dropped off on Election Day, which Richer estimated to represent as much as 20% of the vote. And in a state with increasingly close races, that can be pivotal.
“I worry that we are damaging confidence materially by not having a higher percentage of results within 24 hours,” said Richer, who advocates for moving the last day of early ballot drop-offs from Election Day to the previous Friday.
Fontes rebutted that a preoccupation with speed has only arisen in recent years, due to close races and political rhetoric. The Democrat, who was elected Maricopa County recorder in 2016 before losing his re-election bid to Richer in 2020, favors keeping the deadline intact to ensure as many voters can cast their ballots as possible.
Fontes pointed out that it appears results have gotten faster, despite the burden of late earlies growing larger. In 2020, under his tenure, only around 100,000 late earlies were dropped off on Election Day but final reporting times were similar to those during the 2022 election — despite nearly twice the number of late earlies.
Fontes added that speeding up election results while remaining accurate takes increased resources.
“The rule has been you can either have your elections fast and/or accurate and/or cheap. But you only get to pick two,” he said. “You can have them fast and accurate, and it’s going to cost you a ton of money. You can have them accurate and cheap, but they aren’t going to be fast. That’s what we have now.”
Should Arizona eliminate adjudication?
Adjudication is the process by which voter intent is determined when a ballot is too damaged for a tabulator to read. When a voter spills coffee on their ballot, or fills in both bubbles for a single race but then circles the candidate they actually prefer, for example, a tabulating machine is unable to log their choice. That’s when a panel of election workers, which consists of a Democrat, a Republican and a non-partisan, trained election inspector, discusses the voter’s true intent.
Richer noted that adjudication also serves to lengthen the process, and eats up a lot of resources when ballots could simply be taken at face value; the voter, he said, had the choice to submit a new ballot, but didn’t.
“It’s a wash, it’s a lot of time and resources,” he said.
Many states, he added, don’t adjudicate, but Arizona election officials are statutorily required to adjudicate where possible. Maricopa County has a long record of adjudication because it, among all 15 counties, is most capable of doing so. That has placed its election officials at the center of the controversy around adjudication rates, which election deniers use to bolster bogus claims that election workers nefariously change the choices of voters.
Fontes, however, argued that election officials should do the utmost to ensure all voters have their ballots and voices counted.
“I think adjudication is due (to) the voter. The voter took the time to fill out the ballot,” he said. “We, as election administrators, shouldn’t be just pitching the whole thing, or even that one race.”
“The warm and fuzzy Democrat thinks we should pay attention to what the voters actually feel,” Fontes said, to an eruption of laughter from the audience.
“And the Republican wants you to fill out your bubble!” joked Richer.
Should we replace machines with hand-counts?
Currently, Arizona uses tabulating machines to count vast amounts of ballots. These undergo extensive testing to ensure they meet state and federal standards, and limited hand-counts are used before and after an election to verify accuracy.
Conspiracy theories around them, however, have only increased since the midterm election, which saw issues with on-demand printers in Maricopa County that lead to hundreds of rejected ballots. Skeptics of automated counting machines — which have been used in some form in Arizona as far back as 1881 — have proposed a complete return to hand-counts.
Both Richer and Fontes dismissed that proposal as unfeasible. Studies of hand-counts have found them to be consistently flawed, with error rates large enough to sway close elections. And asking election workers to process thousands of ballots by hand, many of which have multiple — if not dozens of — races, in a timeframe Arizonans would be happy with is unrealistic. Maricopa County alone had 80 contests on the 2022 midterm ballot.
“Hand-counting is far less accurate than machine tabulation,” Fontes said.
“We had 80 contests in this past election on the ballot, and let’s say 2 million ballots in Maricopa County. One-hundred-and-sixty million votes? Have fun for multiple months,” Richer said.
Proponents of hand-counts have advocated for a wholesale return to smaller precinct-style voting. Vote-center style voting is popular in both larger and rural communities, and is used in Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties. Precinct voters can vote only in their assigned precinct, which is determined by where they live; voting elsewhere means their ballot will go uncounted.
Vote-centers have on-demand printers on location, which allows them to print any ballot type for any voter from that county. In Maricopa County last year, some of those printers malfunctioned, leading to chaos at some voting sites. But Richer said the benefits of vote-centers still far outweighs any criticism from opponents who worry, baselessly, that it leads to increased fraud.
“It is overwhelmingly popular with voters in all exit surveys,” he said. “It reduced costs, it is way more convenient. The number one thing voters complain about when showing up to vote in person is: ‘Did I show up to the right location?’ Well, as long as you show up within your county, then it works.”
Should Arizona replace its voting system with ranked-choice voting?
Ranked-choice voting has become a hot-button topic this year, as an outcry emerged after Arizona Republicans introduced a measure to ban it. Critics accused the party of acting preemptively as the state becomes more purple and Republicans — long the majority party — have seen their decades-long hold on Arizona politics begin to fracture.
Ranked choice voting is a system by which voters choose their candidates, regardless of party, from most to least favorite. The top choices determine which candidates move forward. Arizona elections operate under a winner-take-all system, where the candidate which garners the greater number of votes wins.
Proponents of ranked choice voting have sold it as a process which promotes more substantive and less combative races, because candidates may end up working together. Fontes and Richer seemed to agree, but both added the change would require careful thought and voter reeducation.
Fontes advocated for gradually introducing the system by first using it in school district or local elections. Perhaps the place for ranked choice voting is in the state’s primaries, he said, to ensure that candidates in the general elections are quality candidates.
“It saves tons of money, I think you will have much more intelligent conversations and, therefore, eventually get much better policy makers,” he said.
Richer added that ranked choice voting could ensure a more representative legislative body, which is currently often shaped by heavily partisan districts.
Could these changes happen?
Many of the proposals, and the funding to fulfill those proposals, would require legislative action. And while the Republican majority has often been accused of attempting to enshrine conspiracy theories into law by advancing measures to ban drop-boxes or early voting altogether, the election officials noted that having the conversation is important, and some legislators may be open to enacting their reforms.
A proposal from Richer, for example, to prohibit voter registration organizations from paying contractors to collect those registrations lest they engage in duplicitous activity to obtain them, has found an ally in a bill this session to do just that.
“We have a lot of opportunities that the general public never gets to see because we’re making sausage in the back,” Fontes assured the crowd.
“I view having the conversation as an end in itself, so people understand why we’re in the framework that we’re currently in. And if we chose to stay in that, then at least people have an understanding of it,” Richer said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.