Fontes and Richer laugh, debate at Valley Bar event

Fontes and Richer laugh, debate at Valley Bar event

Richer, Fontes, election reform, Valley Bar, Phoenix, Democrats, Republicans, Lake
Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, on left, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, middle, and Garrett Archer, an ABC15 journalist, talk at Valley Bar in Phoenix on Feb. 8. Between playful jabs and Harry Potter references, former political opponents Fontes and Richer talked about election reform proposals in this rare live event. (Photo by Nick Phillips/Arizona Capitol Times)

Between playful jabs and Harry Potter references, former political opponents and current election officials Adrian Fontes and Stephen Richer talked about election reform proposals in a rare live event on Wednesday night at Valley Bar, the bar and nightclub off Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix. 

The event was part political debate and part free-form show as Garrett Archer, the ABC15 journalist, lightly moderated a conversation between the two men as more than 100 attendees sipped beer and cocktails (including drinks named for Fontes and Richer) in the dimly-lit underground venue. 

Richer, the Republican Maricopa County Recorder, trotted out a proposal he first circulated last month that he says would tighten up voting rules and allow Arizonans to know the outcome of key political races faster. 

He argues the state should eliminate “late early ballots” – mail-in ballots deposited in drop boxes in the days before Election Day and even on Election Day. Those ballots, which represent a growing share of votes around the state, have been blamed for slowing election results, including in the November 2022 election. 

“It’s a trade-off between: Do we want this convenience of being able to drop off your early ballot on Election Day? Do we value that more? And if we do that’s fine; Or do we value having a higher percentage of results available within 24 hours?” Richer said on Wednesday. 

Fontes, the Democratic Secretary of State, said he doesn’t like any idea that would take away potential avenues for voting,  

“I think Stephen’s perspective is a little bit different,” Fontes said. “Respectfully, this is what I believe about his perspective – is that he’s okay with cutting off some of those access points, so that we can get those faster results.” 

Still, Fontes conceded that if there’s a trade-off in play, it’s not clear what choice average Arizonans would make. 

“We don’t know what the average voter wants, because we’ve never asked them,” he said. 

The theme of the event was: Should we change the way we vote? And while the conversation did address potential election law changes, anyone who came hoping for new or untested responses to that question may have left disappointed. 

The extraordinary part of the night had more to do with how starkly it contrasted with the prevailing political environment in the state. In Arizona, a hotbed of election denialism and fiery rhetoric surrounding elections, elected officials from different parties sat down on the same couch and shared different views about election administration without accusing each other of stealing elections or spreading conspiracy theories. 

The disagreements were predictable, but significant – and often ended in laughter. 

Richer said that ballot adjudication – the manual review of ballots with irregular markings that can’t be read by electronic tabulators – should be eliminated. If a voter fills in their ballot the wrong way, they can get a new one, and if they don’t, that’s on them, he argued. 

“There’s no reason to believe that Democrats make mistakes at a higher percentage than Republicans on their ballots, and so I think it’s a wash,” Richer said. “It’s a lot of time, it’s a lot of resources.” 

Fontes disagreed and put on a jokingly sentimental voice to describe his position. 

“The warm and fuzzy Democrat thinks we should pay attention to what the voters actually feel,” he quipped, to laughs from the audience. 

Richer, feigning exasperation, cut in: “And the Republican wants you to fill out your bubble – fill it out!” 

The chummy atmosphere at Valley Bar, however, doesn’t seem to be indicative of a wider shift in Arizona’s partisan politics around elections. 

In the Senate Elections Committee, chair Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, has used the first few weeks of the legislative session to take testimony in the Senate chambers from a string of people who question the validity of Arizona’s elections and argue the election process is rife with fraud. Any changes to state election laws will likely need to pass through her committee. 

Still, there was at least some crossover between the far-right corners Arizona politics and the Wednesday evening crowd. 

Caroline Wren, a onetime top aide to both former Arizona gubernatorial Kari Lake and former President Donald Trump, sat in a chair about halfway between the stage and the back of the room on Wednesday, and chatted with Archer after the event. She was part of the Lake team that refused to acknowledge the outcome of the Nov. 8 election even after the votes had been counted and showed Gov. Katie Hobbs won by about 17,000 votes. 

As the evening wrapped up, Richer, a noted Harry Potter fan, dug out a deep and perhaps oblique reference to the contingent of Arizona Republicans who have spent the past two years claiming the state’s elections are marred by fraud. 

“Dumbledore said, at the end of Book Five, that people are much more likely to forgive you for being wrong than forgive you for being right. And this was after it had been revealed that the Dark Lord had returned, and a lot of people had to eat crow and sort of acknowledge it,” Richer said. 

“And I think that with respect to elections, we are facing a lot of people who know that they have been wrong, and it’s maybe even damaged their political prospects for the last two years, but it is very hard for humans to come out and say that.”