Candidates for top Arizona election job face off in heated debate

The 30-minute debate was sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.
The 30-minute debate was sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.(Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission)
Published: Sep. 22, 2022 at 7:12 AM MST
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PHOENIX (AP) — A Republican Arizona lawmaker who embraces election conspiracies and has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement took to the debate stage with the Democrat who helped oversee the 2020 election in Maricopa County Thursday evening as they both seek the state’s top election post. During the debate, Thursday night, state Rep. Mark Finchem revealed for the first time the Department of Justice and the Jan. 6 commission interviewed him as a witness.

However, Arizona’s Family has been unable to independently confirm this with the panel or the DOJ. Finchem was at the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and there had been reports the committee subpoenaed him. The surprise admission happened during a very contentious debate between Finchem and Adrian Fontes, the former Maricopa County Recorder who lost his 2020 reelection bid.

The two candidates sparred over the use of mail-in ballots, a popular method of voting that over 80 percent of Arizona voters use. Fontes has been vocal about his support of the mail-in ballots, while he called out Finchem for his opposition. “You called for the elimination of vote by mail,” Fontes said to Finchem at one point in the debate.

Finchem seemed to avoid speaking about mail-in voting. “The question is mail-in voting. Do you want to get rid of mail-in voting?” the moderator asked. “What I want doesn’t matter,” replied Finchem. “It matters to your mindset and judgement,” said the moderator. “My mindset and judgement doesn’t matter in this regard,” said Finchem.

Finchem had been an outspoken supporter of the “Stop the Seal” movement that promotes claims that the 2020 election was rigged. He also continued to question Arizona’s election system, but did not give input about the midterm election. “Was the August midterm election fair? Were there any improprities that you saw?” the moderator asked. “I have no idea,” Finchem replied.

However, Finchem did call out Fontes’ management of the 2020 election when Fontes was Maricopa County recorder. Fontes wanted to send mail-in ballots to all Democratic voters in the Presidential preference election, but the court blocked him from doing so.

“I would encourage election officials to do everything that they can to help voters, and to get as many American voices involved in democracy as possible,” said Fontes. He defended his decision, saying it was during the pandemic and he believed he was doing what he thought was best for voters.

One of these two men will oversee elections in our state for the next four years. Finchem has built a national following among Trump supporters and those who believe without evidence that the former president lost in Arizona and other battleground states because of fraud. Fontes says Finchem’s claims have eroded faith in democracy, and he’s in the odd position of having “to debate someone who doesn’t believe in reality.”

After the debate, Arizona’s Family asked Finchem to expand on his interview with the DOJ, including when it happened and what he told them. “It’s a very long statement that was actually in my written response and testimony,” Finchem said, adding he was interviewed “a couple of months ago.” Fontes said he hopes the DOJ investigates Finchem. “If he did something wrong, I hope they prosecute him and convictim, end of story on that one,” Fontes said.

The 30-minute debate was sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission and was the public’s only scheduled chance to see the two candidates for secretary of state side-by-side. The secretary acts as Arizona’s top election official, oversees many business filings, and is next in line if the governor leaves office prematurely.

Finchem has joined a lawsuit with the Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, that seeks to require all ballots to be hand-counted in a state that saw 3.4 million ballots cast in 2020, covering more than 100 races. A federal judge dismissed the case in August, but they have appealed. Finchem insists the courts and the media are ignoring legitimate concerns about problems with the 2020 election. He’s a retired Kalamazoo, Michigan, police officer who has been a member of the Arizona House since 2015. “People are, they’ve had a gutful of the narrative that there was nothing wrong” with the 2020 election, Finchem said in an interview the day after he won the four-way Aug. 2 Republican primary. “The whole false narrative that the national media has tried to portray for the last two years has fallen apart -- and now I’m vilified by rags like the Guardian and the Atlantic.”

Fontes is an attorney and former Marine who ran primary ads saying he would protect voting rights for all Arizonans and that election deniers like Finchem were making a full-fledged attack on democracy. Fontes said Finchem’s statements are detached from reality, making it difficult “to have a cogent debate.”

“His cognitive dissonance is so far out of whack that nothing he says can be trusted,” Fontes said Wednesday. “And that’s unfortunate, because I’m in the awkward position to have to debate a person who doesn’t know what reality is.”

Finchem says he will run the secretary’s office without favor for either party. He says his first priority is to rewrite the state elections procedures manual, which sets out rules for county officials to administer elections. The manual was the source of controversy earlier this year, with the Republican attorney general suing Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs over a new manual Brnovich refused to approve. A judge refused to force changes the attorney general demanded.

Finchem said the current manual “is filled with defects.” It is written by the secretary, and the attorney general and governor must sign off on it each election cycle. If Finchem and Republicans running for attorney general and governor all win, they will be able to make sweeping changes to election administration rules.

“My campaign is going to speak to one priority, and that is restoration of the rule of law, holding people accountable for following election law,” Finchem said in the post-primary interview. He has not returned repeated calls and messages in recent weeks.

Finchem continues to insist that the 2020 election was unfair, and recent reports have documented him accusing former Vic President Mike Pence of orchestrating “a coup” when he called for the military to stop the attack on the Capitol. He’s also said he believes Trump won Arizona because he’s never met anyone who voted for President Joe Biden.

Fontes said he expects Finchem to attack him for his efforts to send all county residents mail ballots during the March 2020 presidential primary, a move that happened early in the coronavirus pandemic and was blocked by the courts. However, he stands by those efforts to boost voter access and on his record of running the recorders office well.

“I think he’s going to try to come across as a humble small town law enforcement guy and ignore the fact that he participated a violent insurrection that resulted in the death of police officers,” Fontes said of the upcoming debate (Finchem did not enter the Capitol). “He’ll try to distract away from his responsibility for essentially eroding our democracy.”

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