Nobody recognizes Adrian Fontes when he walks into a Phoenix lunch spot 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 with Swiss cheese and bacon (no bun) and launches into a monologue about his work to increase election transparency, like implementing a text-messaging system to inform voters when their ballots were received and their votes have been counted.
Fontes, 52, is a sixth-generation Mexican American who can trace his Arizona ancestry back to 1695. 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.”
High-profile is a bit of a stretch. Fontes is running for Arizona secretary of state, a typically anonymous role that oversees the tedious details of election administration: training poll workers, managing the statewide voter-registration database, verifying the accuracy of voting machines, and certifying election results. But in 2022, the job has taken on an outsize importance. 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.
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. A rogue election official could attempt to prematurely stop the counting of ballots, pervert the Electoral College process, turn over the outcome of the election to partisan state legislators, or simply refuse to certify the result, all while publicly sowing doubt about the validity of the contest. It could present an existential test 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 public 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 more charismatic, they might have picked a different line of work than election administration.) They are Democrats and Republicans, incumbents and challengers, running for offices as big as governor and as small as county clerk. Many have met only in passing, if at all. 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.
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 recognize the stakes. 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.
A single conspiracy theorist overseeing elections in a swing state could plunge the next presidential race into chaos or even change the result. “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.”
A few weeks before visiting Fontes in Arizona, I called his opponent. I was surprised Finchem was willing to talk. A state representative and professional realtor, Finchem marched at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He is a member of the Oath Keepers, an antigovernment organization whose leader and other members have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their alleged role in the insurrection. 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 chuckled. “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.”
Why, I asked him, was it so impossible to believe Biden won in Arizona, as many polls predicted and postelection reviews 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, party officials, and members of Congress questioned the legitimacy of the elections that installed Trump and George W. Bush (twice) as President, even though the Democratic nominees conceded those races. In 2018, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams refused to acknowledge that her defeat in Georgia’s governor’s race was legitimate. But such objections were intended mostly to call attention to procedural issues, such as allegations of voter suppression and critiques of the Electoral College. They were grumblings about an allegedly unfair system, not attempts to undo the results themselves, and they did not interfere with the peaceful transfer of power.
The Trumpian Stop the Steal movement is unprecedented for its scale, its longevity, its resistance to established facts, and its embrace of violence as a mechanism to overturn the will of the voters. Proponents believe that the 2020 presidential race was actively stolen, not just that the outcome was unfair. 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. In Arizona, the Republican-sponsored audit that set out to prove mass voter fraud in the state actually revealed the opposite, uncovering a handful more votes for Biden and fewer for Trump.
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. According to this tally, roughly 60% of American voters will have at least one election denier on their ballot in November. Many of them are running for statewide roles that would oversee the next election. By the end of the primaries, half of all races for governor and more than a third of all races for secretary of state included an election denier, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fair elections. At least 11 GOP nominees for secretary of state—often a state’s top election official—have embraced Trump’s Big Lie.
These candidates are part of a sprawling effort to respond to the result of the last election by seizing control of the next one. 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. In Gillespie County, Texas, the entire elections department quit. At least 10 states have passed laws imposing large fines or felony charges on even small human errors or technical infractions by election administrators. “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.”
Jim Marchant, a former state assembly member and former telecommunications executive, is the Republican nominee for Nevada secretary of state. 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.”
In the Electoral College battlegrounds of Arizona, Michigan, and Nevada, election deniers have won GOP nominations for secretary of state. In all these races, Republicans see a plausible path to victory. 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.”
Yet before the election deniers can radically reshape American democracy, they have to win their races. And that’s where the Defenders come in. For many of them, what was once a bid for a routine clerical position has become imbued with the weight of saving the American 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.”
Benson has gotten used to living 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. Another time, Benson was unloading groceries in her kitchen when a man started pounding on the door, forcing her to send her son into the basement and call for help. (“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. If anything, she says, the threats have strengthened her commitment 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. It used to be that angry callers to his office alleged wrongdoing by the other party, he says; now, the callers allege wrongdoing by the election administrators themselves. 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, a former Nevada athletic commissioner and first-time candidate for elected office, says he originally decided to run for secretary of state in Nevada to streamline business licensing and protect voting rights. But when Marchant won the GOP primary, everything about the contest changed. “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] in 2024. I could totally f-ck up the country, and that’s on me.”
At the local level, county clerk candidates are running to defeat election deniers across the country. “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.
Some of the most important Defenders are Republicans who vouched for the integrity of the 2020 election while beating back election deniers in GOP primaries. “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. In June, Anderson won the GOP nomination for Colorado secretary of state over Tina Peters, who has promoted voter-fraud conspiracy theories and was recently indicted on multiple felony charges in connection with an alleged election-security breach. (She has pleaded not 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. In Idaho, Ada county clerk Phil McGrane defeated two election deniers to win the GOP nomination for secretary of state. “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.”
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.”
The heat is radiating off the pavement at the Arizona strip mall where Adrian Fontes is kicking off an early Saturday morning canvass. It’s the weekend before Labor Day, and signs for Republican candidates for Senate and governor crowd street corners in the Phoenix area. Roughly a dozen volunteers mill around with clipboards, preparing to disperse into the hot morning. Fontes is there to explain why voters should care about 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.”
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 waking up to the importance of these races. The Democratic Association of Secretaries of State has raised more than $16 million this cycle, a tenfold increase over the most recent midterm, though still a fraction of what the party raises for other races. For iVote, the group supporting Democratic candidates for secretary of state, its $15 million budget this year is more than double what it spent in 2018. “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. Yet for years, Republicans have invested more in those 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.”
—With reporting by Julia Zorthian and Mariah Espada