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Political storms ahead for Dem elections head in red state

Katie Hobbs

Katie Hobbs

As the first Democrat to be elected as recorder in Maricopa County in decades, Adrian Fontes has also served as a punching bag for Republicans, for reasons both legitimate and political.

Now imagine what they’ll say about Katie Hobbs.

Newly elected as Arizona’s first Democratic secretary of state in more than 20 years, Hobbs enters an elections universe plagued by errors and doubts in previous years, both locally and nationally.

Throughout the country, reports of Russian influence on elections have surfaced, sowing questions of election integrity. That story touched close to home when the FBI alerted Arizona officials in August 2016 that Russian hackers targeted the state’s voter registration system, though no harm was reported.

Locally, elections in Maricopa County have been closely scrutinized since the 2016 presidential preference election, when voters waited in lines for four hours or more to cast ballots in the race to determine major party presidential nominees. It was a snafu that won’t soon be forgotten, though mistakes are always a part of the job, officials warn, and Hobbs will be further scrutinized for them as the overseer of the state’s election system.

Hobbs will be judged not only for her performance, but for her party affiliation, warned Zachary Smith, a regents’ professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.

“Undoubtedly there will be this noise from the Republican Party when things foul up, if they do,” Smith told our reporter. “She’s gonna be getting the same sort of stuff (as Fontes).”

That’s a shame, Fontes said, given the nature of administering elections.

“It can’t be about politics. This is really a safe space. And it’s a very odd place to be as an elected official,” he said.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes speaks at the Tabulation and Election Center, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes speaks at the Tabulation and Election Center, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Presidential primary

Nonetheless, election officials at the county and state level acknowledge that partisan criticism is unfortunately inevitable given the nature of the offices — they’re elected positions, after all, and that means those who hold the office run in partisan elections pitting Republican against Democrat.

It’s always been that way. What’s different now is the heightened awareness of the importance of election management, said Fontes.

Fontes said that began in the last presidential primary, as Democrats debated the system by which Hillary Clinton was eventually nominated to run. At issue were superdelegates, who cast deciding votes for who will serve as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee at party conventions, but aren’t beholden to the result of a popular vote in each state.

“You had this idea of, what is a fair election? What is a fair nomination process?” Fontes said.

Perhaps that helped lay the groundwork for discontent once the presidential preference election was held in March 2016. The disastrous day, in which a decision by then-Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell to reduce the number of polling places in the county was widely panned, is a black mark on Arizona elections.

“Absolutely that put a big exclamation point on it,” Fontes said. “And people really started to say the administration of elections is important… So where you had a political class that was always concerned about these things, now that particular topic jumped out into the public sphere.”

That public conversation has led to greater demands on election managers, said state Elections Director Eric Spencer.

“There are different and exponentially heightened expectations about the way elections should be run,” Spencer said. “The public and the media’s expectation is that elections should basically be error free, that polling places should be line-free… and that results need to be faster and with less uncertainty.”

“Regardless of your political party, you have to anticipate the political and the media demands in the new era, and you need to get ahead of it.”

Expected perfection

Fontes and Spencer agree that the demand for perfect elections is unrealistic, particularly in a county like Maricopa, the fourth largest in the nation.

Spencer compared Election Day to trying to land a plane when the landing gear won’t engage: “You’re going to have to crash land the plane in the safest way possible.”

Perfection “is impossible,” Fontes said.

That was certainly true in August, when Fontes got off to an inauspicious start running his countywide first election.

Fontes was elected recorder based on a pitch to better manage elections, yet his initial performance was widely criticized and generated national headlines. Decisions he made while preparing for Election Day left dozens of polling places across the Valley unprepared to open on schedule the day of the election.

Michele Reagan at her 2015 inauguration (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)

Michele Reagan at her 2015 inauguration (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting)

Waited hours

That meant voters waited hours that morning to cast their ballots. Some simply had to leave. If there’s anything for Hobbs to learn from that episode, it’s to own up to the mistake and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“The fact that those polling places didn’t open on time was a result of a decision that I made, and that decision was to hire a contractor instead of training our own folks to do it,” Fontes said. “So is that a valid criticism of my decision in that particular instance? Absolutely. Is that0f a partisan criticism? No, it’s not. We didn’t open up 100 percent of our polling places on time because of that decision, and I accept responsibility for it.”

As for Michele Reagan, the outgoing secretary of state offers plenty of teachable moments.

Reagan didn’t even make it out of the Republican primary against a well-funded opponent with plenty of ammunition, thanks to Reagan’s own missteps, particularly a failure to send out 200,000 publicity pamphlets to voters on time as prescribed by state law.

While the error didn’t result in criminal charges, an investigation spearheaded by the attorney general excoriated Reagan for the lack of accountability following the mistake, which later hounded her on the campaign trail.

Smith of NAU said Hobbs would do well to at least avoid the same type of mistakes that harmed Reagan’s reputation.

“Michele Reagan’s mistakes were not that she committed errors, it’s that she omitted doing things that she might’ve done to make things run more smoothly,” he said. “And I think that the job of the secretary of state, as I said, is fairly administrative and fairly routine.”

Reagan also was criticized for errors that were out of her control. While it was the Maricopa County recorder’s decision to reduce the number of polling places in Maricopa County in 2016, Reagan was blamed at the time as the figurehead of Arizona elections. Her primary opponent continued to use the episode on the campaign trail by casting her, not inaccurately, as the state’s chief elections officer.

Reagan declined to comment.

The confusion constantly weighed down the office, said Spencer, and will likely carry over to Hobbs.

“The biggest misconception is that the secretary of state has authority over every square inch of the elections process… In many ways we’re a collection of 15 colonies with a weak central government before the Constitution created a stronger federal government,” Spencer said. “That’s how Arizona elections are intentionally designed.”

Mudslinging

Hobbs was not made available to comment, but her campaign manager, Niles Harris, said avoiding criticism is as simple as not making mistakes.

“She’s looking forward to going into the Secretary of State’s Office and starting to solve the problems that have plagued it and making sure that we have fair and efficient elections,” Harris said.

Not so, officials warned.

Even when mistakes don’t occur – beyond Arizona’s typically long wait for results and lines at a polling place near Arizona State University, the general election in Maricopa County was largely a success – there is always room for partisan criticism and mudslinging.

Fontes has been the focus of such attacks ever since the primary election, when the Arizona Republican Party seized on his errors and ran a digital ad against him two years before Fontes is up for re-election.

Their criticism continued in the general election with unfounded accusations of Democrats stealing the election. Fontes said the attacks are based not in fact, but on his party affiliation.

“Consider the source of the criticism. The main criticisms that I’m getting are from actors who are acting in a partisan role for partisan purposes,” he said.

That’s a shame, Fontes said, because running elections is about as nonpartisan as a political job can get. Being a recorder is a job about logistics, data security and other management-type issues. Spencer said it’s the same for the secretary of state.

Newly-elected secretaries undergo the process of learning the role of the office, the scope of their authority, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that help ensure elections run smoothly.

About the only partisan influence Hobbs may have that’s different from Reagan depends on her legislative agenda, Spencer said.

“That can be a reflection of partisan values, and that’s entirely appropriate. So that’s to be expected, that there’ll be a different emphasis at the Legislature,” he said. “The other 98 percent of the job is not really affected by ideology.”

Hobbs has vowed to take politics out of the office, though she’ll also prioritize increased transparency in campaign spending, a politically-charged topic at the Capitol.

One way to keep politics out of the office is to get to know the staff. Spencer urged Hobbs to “take more time to listen than speak,” a point emphasized by Fontes as well.

The recorder said he waited until he was actually serving his first day in office to decide who stays and who goes.

“There are a lot of employees here that have incredible experience, and although your gut feeling may be to want to change everything immediately, proceed with tact,” Spencer warned. “People here with experience have incredible insight to give.”

That experience will be invaluable since the next election is less than 16 months away.

“The new administration will see the presidential preference election sneak up on it quicker than they’re ready,” Spencer said.

3 comments

  1. Sen. John Kavanagh

    Maybe it is time to place the election’s function into the hands of permanent civil servants at both the state and county level. It’s a technical job and should not be a political one. And maybe it’s time to convert the office of Secretary of State to Lieutenant Governor and have the candidates run as a team so that voters who vote for either a Democrat or Republican for governor who wins retain their winning choice should the governor leave midterm. And while we are are at it, why do we have an elected Mine Inspector, which is a technical job?

  2. Senator Kavanaugh,

    With all due respect, the vast, vast majority of staff working in state and county elections office roles ARE permanent civil servants. In fact, only the top official in each office is elected. You know this and so your statement is without merit.

    The ability to execute efficient elections has nothing to do with whether Arizona has a Lieutenant Governor. You’re just upset that now the shoe is on the other foot (e.g. Napolitano > Brewer, Ducey > Hobbs) the GOP can’t run the tables like it used to. Times are a changin’ cowboy!

  3. “[M]aybe it’s time to convert the office of Secretary of State to Lieutenant Governor and have the candidates run as a team so that voters who vote for either a Democrat or Republican for governor who wins retain their winning choice should the governor leave midterm.”

    Says the FAR right-wing Republican from LD23, who NEVER misses an opportunity to take pot-shots at the Democratic Party, its officeholders, or candidates.

    Did it occur to Sen. Kavanagh that we, a majority of AZ voters for that office, knew EXACTLY what we were doing by electing a DEMOCRAT, Katie Hobbs, Secretary of State, AND successor to Doug Ducey should he leave office midterm?

    I didn’t vote for Doug Ducey to begin with, and I certainly don’t want another Republican as Governor should he leave office early — which he’s not going to do anyway.

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