Then-Secretary-elect Adrian Fontes speaking at a Pearl Harbor remembrance event in Phoenix on Dec. 7, 2022.
The job of a county recorder or even a secretary of state used to be something that most people didn’t know or think much about. But that has dramatically changed in recent years, with the rise in election fraud claims and investigations throughout the country. How elections are run at the local and state levels has taken on a supersized role in the political process—and those who run them have become the subject of unprecedented scrutiny.
Adrian Fontes (JD ’00) knows this better than just about anyone. In 2016, the Sturm College of Law grad was elected county recorder of Maricopa County in Arizona—the state’s largest—and oversaw the hotly contested 2020 election. In 2022, he was elected the 21st secretary of state of Arizona.
DU Magazine talked with Secretary Fontes about his path to politics and the state of elections in Arizona and beyond.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Nogales, Arizona. My family has been in Arizona for more than 300 years, since before Arizona was a state. They worked on the railroad for generations. Nogales was a good place to grow up. Many people don’t realize that it’s a major point of entry for the U.S., so there are a lot of folks from around the world who grow up there. After high school, I served in the Marine Corps for four years and then went to Arizona State University and got a degree in communications. Then, I came to DU for law school. I picked DU because I wanted to get away from Arizona, and the programs were consistent with what I wanted: water law and a strong clinical program.
How was your law school experience?
I enjoyed meeting people from around the country, getting to know them, watching them do their thing after graduation. I’m still friends with many of them today. But law school was challenging—in the Marine Corps, I was nominated for meritorious commission, and I graduated from ASU with honors, so it was really humbling to suddenly be among a whole bunch of equals who also had excelled wherever they came from. I really enjoyed the professors I had—Roberto Corrado, Jan Laitos, Ved Nanda—a wonderful human being—Steve Winokur, who made a very deep impression on me, and of course Lucy Marsh. It was through contacts at DU that I ended up interning at the Denver District Attorney’s Office.
In addition to the Denver District Attorney’s Office, you worked for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. What appealed to you about that work?
I had been planning to go into water law, environmental work, but once I got the internship in the Denver DA’s office, I got the bug. I was energized by the idea of seeking truth and pursuing justice but also by the pace and the process of the work. My first day on the job, I remember a guy I worked with telling me about “the talker,” the voice in your head that never stops. I thought he was crazy, but that first year, after sitting through a few trials, my talker started talking—and it hasn’t shut up since.
It’s like your brain is constantly processing—on any given case, you’re thinking, is this the right case to bring, is there jurisdiction, could there be damages, what are the possible defenses, what are the possible angles for the prosecution, what are we going to use if we end up in trial, what is discovery going to look like, what are my questions going to look like, how is this witness, that witness, this piece of evidence, that piece of evidence, and it goes on and on. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.
I think that’s why so many attorneys or legally trained folks end up in politics. The issues are massive and complex, there’s a lot of players, a lot of pieces of the puzzle, and you’re not just doing some simple task every day. It’s a new challenge all the time—and we’re good at solving problems.
Why did you decide to get into politics?
I’ve always been interested in it. My grandfather was the mayor of Nogales; he got elected on my 9th birthday, in fact. One of the things he told me back then was, if you ever decide to run for office, half of the people are going to hate you and the other half won’t care—those are the odds you’re going to be running against. If you’re willing to face that, go for it.
I never anticipated that I would run for office. Then, in 2016, when I saw so many people not being able to vote in Maricopa County—or having to wait in four- or five-hour-long lines, I got angry and decided to run for county recorder. And then I won. I found myself much like Robert Redford at the end of “The Candidate,” when he’s standing there, and he’s like, “Now what?” I had to learn how to be an election administration expert. There are very few of us, and every jurisdiction does it a little differently. It was the epitome of on-the-job training.
You lost your reelection bid in 2020 and decided to run for secretary of state in 2022. What led you to that decision?
January 6. It was like a call to duty, and secretary of state was the next natural step. I was qualified and had election administration experience. I’m the first county election administration to become secretary of state in Arizona since the early 80s. The office was due to have someone in it with my background.
What are your goals as secretary of state?
My short-term goal was to build an all-star team of folks from Arizona that really know what we need to do and are able to make the right decisions and run the office well, and we’ve done that. I’m very proud of the team I’ve built.
Long term, we need to do everything we can to help the counties. The people in our 15 counties are the ones who actually run the elections. They deserve as much support as this office can possibly give and then a little bit more. We’re in a bit of a crisis—12 out of our 15 counties have in the last couple of years lost a senior elections official, which can be incredibly impactful, especially for the smaller offices. We’ve got to provide that support where we can, and I think we’re geared up for it.
You’ve experienced firsthand the harassment that can come with being an election official, and in 2021, you testified before Congress about your experiences. Is enough being done to protect election officials?
While all the political noise is going on, election officials are the ones keeping our democracy alive. For these folks to suffer threats and harassment—plus the lack of funding and the second-class bureaucrat status that they have—it really tells us where we prioritize election administration, and that’s horrible. Without election administration, you don’t have a democracy. I definitely don’t think folks have been paying enough attention to that.
And we have to win this fight. The people who harass election officials and deny election results do not care who they hurt. It’s like a sport to them. That’s something new and terrifying, and we can’t back down. That’s why I testified before Congress—to raise awareness and help get the support that’s needed.
You have collaborated with Stephen Richer, the Republican Maricopa County recorder who defeated you in 2020, on election integrity issues. Can you talk about that partnership?
My relationship with Stephen represents what America is supposed to be. He and I disagree on a lot of things, but we agree on a lot more. He and I don’t have to be best friends—we’re not—and we don’t have to agree on everything—we don’t—but that doesn’t mean we can’t get along, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together for the benefit of other people. When we say diversity is our strength as Americans, we should be talking about diversity of ideas. And the way we make decisions when we have diverse ideas is through this process we call elections.
Are you optimistic about the future of elections and election workers?
Most people in public office are of good faith and good character. We need to humanize the [election] process a little more, tell the individual stories a little better. It’s easy to criticize the anonymous, amorphous bureaucracy and forget that these are human beings doing this stuff. A lot of people used to take elections administration for granted and didn’t understand any of it at all. What has come out of the election denialist movement is that a lot more people are paying attention, and the more they learn, the more they understand that it’s complicated, and most jurisdictions do it pretty darn well. People in this field don’t mind scrutiny as long as it’s fair. We don’t mind people looking over our shoulders as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the work—because we’ve got a lot of work to do.