NAdrian Fontes can be recognized when he arrives at a Phoenix lunch place near his office. The former recorder of Maricopa County looks like any other Arizona dad: a neat beard, a blue button-down, the kind of guy you’d see cheering on the sidelines at one of his girls’ softball games. He orders a burger topped with Swiss cheese and bacon, and then launches into an interminable monologue about how transparency has improved his election work. For example, implementing text-messaging systems to notify voters of their voting results and when they have been counted.
Fontes is 52 years old and a sixth-generation Mexican American. He can go back as far as 1695 to trace his Arizona heritage. One of his earliest memories is learning to play “You’re a Grand Old Flag” on the autoharp for the 1976 Bicentennial. He enlisted in the Marines at 22, “willing to die for this country,” he says. But Fontes doesn’t think he’s ever taken on a greater patriotic duty than the one he’s attempting right now. “This is my first time being a high-profile candidate in a nationally important race,” he says, pouring hot sauce on his french fries. “Where the stakes are literally the fate of the free world.”
This is not a position that’s very well-known. Fontes will be running to become Arizona Secretary of State. This is an anonymous position that supervises all aspects of election administration, including training and managing poll workers. Verifying the accuracy of voter machines. The job is now of greater importance in 2022. Fontes’ opponent, Republican Mark Finchem, is an election denier: an avid promoter of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen through widespread voter fraud. He is one of many Republicans running to oversee America’s next elections while denying the legitimacy of the last one.
Photo illustration by Klawe Rzeczy for TIME; Cassidy Araiza for TIME; David Devine; Michael Reynolds, Kyle Green, David Zalubowski—AP; Emily Elconin—Reuters; Stephen Maturen—Getty Images; Getty Images (6)
If any of these candidates win, experts warn, they would possess a broad array of powers to undermine future elections if they don’t like the results. Rogue officials could try to stop counting ballots prematurely, reverse the Electoral College process or turn the results over to partisan state lawmakers. Or, they might simply refuse to certify it. All the while posing doubts about the validity and legitimacy of the contest. The outcome could prove to be an existential threat for American democracy. “If you can’t have trusted, neutral people running our elections, then you don’t really have free and fair elections,” says Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute. “Then we’re not a functioning democracy anymore.”
Fontes is part of a loose brigade of unassuming civil servants on the front lines of the fight to protect America’s election system from the Trump allies out to disrupt it. They’re paper pushers and bureaucrats, not inspiring orators or ingenious policymakers or even particularly good politicians. If they were charismatic they may have chosen another line of work, such as election administration. Both Democrats and Republicans are running, both incumbents as well as challengers for office. They have rarely met, or only briefly. They have little in common except a collective purpose: each of them ran this year for an election-oversight position against an opponent who embraces Trump’s “Big Lie.” Fontes calls the group the “most odd mutual support organization in the world.” You could call them the Defenders: the people running to serve as the bulwark between the will of the voters and the conspiracy theorists willing to subvert it.
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It’s a battle that President Joe Biden has cast as the heart of the midterm campaigns. “Equality and democracy are under assault” by those Republicans who “refuse to accept the results of a free election,” Biden declared in a prime-time speech Sept. 1 in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. “They’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state, to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.”
Voters understand the importance of these issues. An Aug. 31 Quinnipiac poll showed that two-thirds of Americans agree that democracy is in peril—one of the only issues on which there was broad agreement across party, gender, and age. In an August NBC News poll, voters listed “threat to democracy” as the most important issue facing the country, above “cost of living” and other economic challenges.
Yet Biden’s party was slow to grasp the vital importance of down-ballot contests like secretary of state races. And even as Democrats touted the importance of “protecting democracy,” some party organizations, like the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, boosted election-denying Republicans in GOP primaries, believing they would be easier to beat in November’s general elections. Democratic candidates and committees spent nearly $44 million to aid Republicans, including many who endorse Trump’s falsehood that the 2020 race was rigged, according to an analysis from OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro spent $840,000 on ads that helped lift election denier Doug Mastriano to victory in the GOP gubernatorial primary—more money than Mastriano spent on himself. If he wins the general election, Mastriano—who has been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee for his alleged work to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election—would appoint Pennsylvania’s next secretary of state, whose powers would include certifying the results in 2024.
The next race for the presidency could be thrown into turmoil by a single conspirator who is in charge of elections in swing states. “If even one of these people win, and they say, ‘We don’t like these results,’ then we’re in a constitutional crisis,” says Ellen Kurz, founder of iVote, which works to elect Democratic secretaries of state.
“They will stop at nothing,” Kurz adds. “So we have to stop them.”
Fontes, Arizona Capitol in Phoenix Sept. 5,
Cassidy Araiza for TIME
In a few weeksI had called my opponent before going to Fontes in Arizona. Finchem agreed to have a conversation with me, which surprised me. Finchem, a state representative and professional Realtor marched to the Capitol Jan. 6, 2021. Finchem is part of Oath Keepers. The Oath Keepers are an antigovernment group whose leader, and others have been accused with conspiring to seditious. After listening to him rattle off various debunked conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines and “mules stuffing ballots in drop boxes,” I asked him a key question: If Biden wins Arizona in 2024, would Finchem certify that result as secretary of state?
Finchem laughed. “If the law is followed, and legitimate votes have been counted, and Joe Biden ends up being the winner,” he told me, “I’m required under the law—if there’s no fraud—to certify the election.” But, he added, “I think you’re proposing something that, quite frankly, is a fantasy.”
When I asked Finchem why was it impossible for him to believe Biden won Arizona in 2008, as polls showed and after-election review results confirmed. “It strains credibility,” Finchem responded. “Isn’t it interesting that I can’t find anyone who will admit that they voted for Joe Biden?” Was it possible that lots of people he didn’t personally know had voted for Biden? “In a fantasy world, anything’s possible,” Finchem said.
There’s always been a political tug-of-war over how elections are administered. Over the years, members of both parties have found reasons to dispute election results they didn’t like. Democratic candidates and party officials as well as members of Congress have questioned whether the election that elected Trump (once) and George W. Bush (two times) was legitimate, even though those elections were won by the Democratic nominees. In 2018, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams refused to acknowledge that her defeat in Georgia’s governor’s race was legitimate. However, these objections were primarily meant to raise procedural concerns such as claims of voter suppression and criticisms of Electoral College. The grumblings were about an allegedly unfair system and not an attempt to change the results.
Trump’s Stop the Steal movement has a unique scale and longevity. It also resists established facts. And it embraces violence to overthrow the will of the people. They believe the 2020 election was deliberately stolen and that it was not fair. They believe this so strongly that many of them stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the election’s certification, breaking a nearly 250-year tradition of peacefully transferring power. They believe it even though judges found that more than 60 of Trump’s postelection legal challenges were lacking in merit; even though state and federal investigations have repeatedly found no widespread voter fraud in 2020; and even though Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, and FBI vouched for the election’s integrity. The Republican-sponsored audit in Arizona that was supposed to uncover mass voter fraud revealed the contrary. It found a few more votes for Biden than for Trump.
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Finchem’s refusal to accept these facts does not make him an outlier among Republican candidates. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight found that of 552 Republicans on the ballot in 2022, 201 have stated that the 2020 election was stolen or taken action to overturn the results, and an additional 61 have “raised questions” about the outcome. This tally shows that roughly 60% of American voters will vote for at least one denier in November. They are all running for state-level positions that will oversee next year’s election. According to States United Action (a nonpartisan group dedicated to fair elections), half the races for governor had been won by election denier candidates. At least 11 GOP nominees for secretary of state—often a state’s top election official—have embraced Trump’s Big Lie.
Benson, secretary-general of Michigan outside her Detroit office on Sept. 9,
TIME with Elaine Cromie
They are all part of an elaborate effort to seize control of the next election and respond to last year’s results. Trump’s allies have sought to punish Republican officials who acknowledged Biden’s win. They’ve joined local GOP committees as part of the so-called precinct strategy promoted by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, and signed up to be poll workers in order to scrutinize election systems. And they’ve orchestrated what experts describe as a mass harassment campaign designed to drive impartial election workers from their jobs. According to a report by the Brennan Center, more than 60% of election workers say they’re worried about interference from political leaders. Gillespie County in Texas saw the complete dissolution of its entire election department. Minimum of 10 states have passed legislation that penalizes election administrators for even minor human mistakes or technical violations. “It’s about making these jobs scary so people leave them,” says Joanna Lydgate, CEO of States United Action, “so people who are election deniers can take those positions.”
Republican nominee for secretary of state in Nevada is Jim Marchant. He’s a former executive at telecommunications and he serves as a member of the state assembly. He told me it’s “impossible to answer” whether he would have certified Biden’s 2020 win because he has so many “suspicions” about the use of voting machines. “Computers are very, very hackable, and we just can’t trust ’em,” he told me, alluding to the debunked conspiracy theory that voting machines switched votes from Trump to Biden. When I asked about the multiple audits that found no significant voter fraud in 2020, Marchant responded, “Those aren’t audits in the way that you can trust.”
Election deniers won GOP nominations as secretary of state in the Electoral College battlegrounds Arizona, Michigan and Nevada. Republicans have a chance to win in all of these races. And if Marchant, Finchem, or Michigan GOP secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo—who has also promoted baseless conspiracies— prevail in November, they would be the top election official in a state that could decide the Presidency in 2024. “You don’t put a bank robber in charge of bank security,” says Ben Berwick of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit organization focused on confronting authoritarianism in the U.S. “You don’t put an arsonist in charge of fire safety.”
However, the deniers of elections existed before themThey must win their races before they can transform America’s democracy. And that’s where the Defenders come in. Many of these people see what used to be a job as a routine clerk position now has the added weight of saving America’s experiment. After Jan. 6, “we looked back and realized that was the end of the beginning,” says Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. “We had to be prepared to endure a multiyear, multifaceted nationally coordinated effort to enable those who tried and failed to undo the results in 2020 to succeed in 2024.”
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Benson is used to being under siege. Shortly after the 2020 election, she had to rush her young son into the bathtub to hide from Trump supporters who had surrounded her home to angrily protest Michigan’s election results. Benson had been unloading groceries from her kitchen one time when another man knocked on her door. She was forced to call 911 and send her son down into the basement. (“Mom, I thought that man was going to kill you,” Benson recalls her son saying.) She’s gotten phone calls about being hung from a tree. They scare her, but they don’t deter her. She says that the threats actually strengthened her dedication to the job. “My determination to lead our state’s election system through this challenging time became etched in granite,” she says.
Steve Simon, who has been Minnesota secretary of state since 2015, says the tone of this year’s race is different. He says that it used to be angry calls to Simon’s office alleging wrongdoing from the opposing party. Now, they are claiming wrongdoing on the part of election officials. Simon, a Democrat, is running for re-election against a Republican who called the 2020 election “the big rig” and “our 9/11.” “In the other races, it was a clash of political differences or policy differences,” he says. “Here the stakes are higher. It’s really a referendum or judgment on the entire system.”
First-time candidates recognize what’s at risk too. Cisco Aguilar is a former Nevada athletic commissioner who was also a first-time candidate to be elected to office. He originally wanted to run as secretary of state to simplify Nevada’s business licensing system and to protect voter rights. All things changed after Marchant won the GOP Primary. “This is now real. This is no longer rhetoric,” says Aguilar, a Democrat. “This is so serious that if I don’t win this election, it could affect the outcome [of the presidential race]By 2024. I could totally f-ck up the country, and that’s on me.”
Candidates for county clerk are seeking to challenge election deniers at the local level. “You either believe that the election was solid and professional and done right, or you believe it was stolen,” says Stacie Wilke-McCulloch, who is running for Carson City, Nev., clerk-recorder against the former chair of the local GOP. “It’s almost like it’s a one-issue campaign.” At the same time, such races rarely attract sustained media coverage or fundraising interest. Lannie Chapman, a Democrat running for Salt Lake City county clerk against an opponent who spoke at a Stop the Steal Rally, has raised about $90,000—a solid haul for a clerk’s race, but far less than candidates for higher-profile offices typically pull in.
Republicans are the best Defenders because they fought back against election deniers and vouched to the integrity of 2020’s election. “It’s been very challenging as an elections professional and a lifelong Republican to see people embrace that conspiracy so fervently,” says Pam Anderson, who served as clerk and recorder for Jefferson County, Colorado, for eight years and was president of the Colorado County Clerks Association. Anderson defeated Tina Peters to win the GOP nomination as Colorado secretary of states. Peters promoted voter-fraud conspiracy theories. Anderson was also indicted for multiple felonies in connection with an alleged election security breach. (She has pleaded no guilty. Anderson is trying to thread the needle between the two parties’ rhetoric about voting. “Security equals suppression for the left, and access equals fraud on the right,” Anderson says. “I don’t believe either of those things.”
In Nebraska, Republican secretary of state Bob Evnen circulated a detailed PowerPoint presentation, titled “Fake vs Fact,” debunking popular conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. To win the GOP nomination to secretary of state, Phil McGrane won in Idaho as Ada county clerk. He defeated two election deniers. “One of my opponents suggested they would decertify election equipment, and that’s alarming to me,” says McGrane. “There are some things that are just logistical and practical and have to work.”
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TIME: Saeed Rahbaran
Brad Raffensperger, who has served as Georgia secretary of state since 2019, famously resisted Trump’s demands to “find” more than 11,000 votes to tip the results of the 2020 presidential election in the Peach State. After he refused to bow to that pressure, Raffensperger’s wife was harassed with sexual text messages and his daughter-in-law’s home was broken into, he told the Jan. 6 committee. In May, Raffensperger vanquished a Trump-aligned challenger to win the party’s nomination. “We have hinge points throughout our American history,” he says, pointing to the Civil War as an example. “I think that if we have people of integrity that will stand in the gap and follow the law and do their job … that’s how we move through this.”
Heat radiatesAdrian Fontes will be canvassing in the Arizona strip mall early on Saturday morning. It’s the weekend before Labor Day, and signs for Republican candidates for Senate and governor crowd street corners in the Phoenix area. A few dozen volunteers are seen milling around holding clipboards and preparing for dispersal in the heat. Fontes will be explaining why voters should pay attention to the secretary-of-state race.
Electing Finchem, he says, would create “chaos and uncertainty” that would pervade everything from voting to business. “Elections are the golden thread that run through the entire fabric of our society,” he adds. “If you pull that thread out, the entire fabric disintegrates.”
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Off to the side, Steven Eshleman, 70, is wearing a hat and shirt that say “Protect Democracy/Elect Fontes.” Eshleman is one of Fontes’ most loyal supporters, showing up to many of his events. “If we lose this election, our democracy is in peril,” says Eshleman. “Who knows what they could do next time?”
Other Fontes supporters say they’re annoyed so few people seem to be paying attention to the candidates trying to repel the threat. “They’re giving so much free publicity to all the Republicans,” says Elaine McGuire, 71, as she hoists a Fontes yard sign at an event in Phoenix later that day. “It’s revving up the MAGA people.”
Democrats are realizing the significance of these races. While the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State’s fundraising this cycle has been tenfold higher than the previous midterm, the figure is only half of that raised by the party for other races. iVote’s $15 million budget for this year, which supports Democratic candidates as secretary of state is nearly double the amount it spent in 2018, has more than twice its 2018 spending. “We are paying more attention than we ever have before,” says Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a group that recruits and trains Democratic candidates to run for local offices. For years, Republicans invested more money in these races. “We are starting at a deficit,” Litman says.
Fontes isn’t focused on the national trends or the broader threat; he’s just trying to win his race. “It’s weird being in the eye of the storm,” he says. In the face of conspiracy, suspicion, and lies, he’s motivated by a belief in his fellow Americans. “Voters will see through the nonsense,” he says. “Once they start paying attention, they will see that the faith that they’ve lost in their fellow citizens oughta come back.”
—Reporting by Julia Zorthian And Mariah Espada
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