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Fontes rejects extending election manual comment period 

Fontes, secretary of state, elections procedure manual, Republicans

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes speaks after taking the ceremonial oath of office at the state Capitol on Jan. 5. Fontes does not plan to agree to a request from Republican lawmakers to extend a public comment period for a draft of the state’s elections procedure guide.(Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

Fontes rejects extending election manual comment period 

Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes doesn’t plan to agree to a request from Republican lawmakers to extend a public comment period for a draft of the state’s election’s procedure guide.

Fontes’ office recently opened the public comment period for the 2023 Elections Procedures Manual draft at the beginning of the month, but House Republicans say the two-week period for comment isn’t an adequate amount of time to review the draft.

Montenegro, elections manual, Fontes
Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear

In an Aug. 4 House GOP news release, Reps. Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear; and Michael Carbone, R-Buckeye, asked for the public comment deadline to be extended until Sept. 1. The Elections Procedures Manual provides legal guidance for election administration to elections officers across the state. Arizona law allows the secretary of state to write a manual every odd year before a general election.

“Requiring public comments to be submitted by August 15th is simply too restrictive and does not provide adequate time for interested stakeholders to review the draft 2023 EMP for compliance with state law,” Carbone said in the release.

Paul Smith-Leonard, a spokesman for Fontes, told the Arizona Capitol Times on Aug. 9 in an email the public comment process for the Elections Procedures Manual is not required by statute, noting Fontes included that to show a commitment to transparency.

“We invite the representatives to submit their comments along with the rest of the public by August 15th,” Smith-Leonard wrote in the email.

House, Elections Procedures Manual, Fontes
Rep. Michael Carbone, R-Buckeye

The deadline for Fontes to submit his draft to the governor and attorney general is Oct. 1. An Aug.1 news release from Fontes says he had already held a series of monthly meetings with local and county election officials to garner feedback for the draft manual.

“As a former county recorder, I understand how important this manual is for the dedicated Arizonans who are entrusted with one of the toughest and most important jobs in our democracy,” Fontes said. “In an atmosphere of heightened scrutiny of our elections, local and county officials need clear guidance based on law.”

The Republican legislators agree with Fontes on the importance of the Elections Procedures Manual. The House GOP release states Carbone and Montenegro don’t believe an unlawful manual should be adopted for elections in 2024 and Republicans view several provisions of Fontes’ manual as unlawful.

“The Elections Procedures Manual is of paramount importance to ensuring the integrity and security of election administration in Arizona,” Montenegro said in the release. “Secretary Fontes should have given the public more than 15 days to review his extensive 259-page draft of the EPM and submit comments. A longer comment period is particularly necessary and reasonable this year because Arizona has not had a legally compliant EPM since 2019.”

In April 2022, Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, sued then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs over her Elections Procedures Manual, which required approval from the attorney general and governor. The lawsuit came months after the deadline that Hobbs met to submit the draft on Oct. 1, 2021.

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper tossed Brnovich’s lawsuit in June 2022 shortly before the state’s primary election and said Hobbs “properly exercised her discretion” drafting the manual. Napper determined Brnovich failed to negotiate with Hobbs or explain how the manual was unlawful.

As a result, Napper ordered Hobbs to use her manual that was approved from 2019 and placed responsibility on Brnovich for causing the state to use an older manual because he filed the lawsuit several months after the approval deadline of Dec. 31.

Other Republicans on the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, Reps. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, and Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, say Fontes’ draft manual wouldn’t comply with state statute.

Kolodin and Parker sent a letter to Fontes on July 18 and outlined what they viewed as “unnecessary provisions” that could possibly violate Arizona statues.

Some of the provisions Kolodin and Parker flagged include a provision that requires county recorders to provide printed instructions to voters for how to make their intent clear if they inadvertently mark a ballot and a provision that lists examples of “potentially intimidating conduct” on Election Day.

“We are optimistic that, with legislative guidance, the 2023 EPM will not meet the same fate as the 2021 EPM, and that Arizonans will be assured that all drafts, including the final draft presented to the Governor and Attorney General, are legally consistent with Arizona election law,” Kolodin and Parker’s letter states.

Interested stakeholders and other public members can view the draft manual on the secretary’s website at https://azsos.gov. A survey is available to submit comments and feedback.