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In race to become Arizona's top election official, 'it's a complete dichotomy of a choice'

Former President Donald Trump tosses Save America hats to the crowd at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on Oct. 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. Trump was stumping for Arizona GOP candidates, including gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, ahead of the midterm election on November 8.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump tosses Save America hats to the crowd at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on Oct. 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. Trump was stumping for Arizona GOP candidates, including gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, ahead of the midterm election on November 8. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The midterm elections are about three weeks away, and in some states around the country, many voters believe democracy itself is on the ballot.

Arizona is one of several battlegrounds where candidates backed by former President Donald Trump have echoed his baseless claims of voter fraud. Trump headlined a rally recently in Mesa, Arizona, propping up candidates like Kari Lake for governor and Finchem for secretary of state.

“If you can, vote on election day. In person,” Trump said, urging his supporters not to vote by mail. “Because it’s much harder for them to cheat.”

There is no evidence of widespread cheating in Arizona’s elections, but the former president won’t forget how he lost Arizona in 2020. Lake and Finchem have made it a centerpiece of their campaigns, and it’s trickling down to conversations around the dinner table.

“I love my country, and I see terrible things happening,” said Susan Sirles at a recent gathering of Republicans in the Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills. When the group met at a local Italian restaurant, dropboxes and voter fraud were hot topics of conversation.

Sirles says she worked on the controversial audit of Maricopa County’s 2020 presidential election. The Republican-led state Senate ordered the hand recount. It took months and cost groups backing Trump millions of dollars.

“I worked the audit because I felt like there was fraud,” she says, “and I think that there was.”

But the truth is, there wasn’t evidence that fraud affected the outcome of the election. When the results of the recount were announced, it confirmed what the courts had already said: Joe Biden won. Still, his victory rattled Arizona’s political landscape, and it lingers here like a heatwave at the end of a long summer.

An election denier on the ballot

Perhaps no one has cranked up the heat more than a local lawmaker named Mark Finchem. In August, Finchem won the Republican primary for secretary of state, which means if he prevails on Nov. 8, a candidate with a record of spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election will be Arizona’s top election official.

In February, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, told Finchem the panel wanted to speak with him about his “unsubstantiated claims about the election, including that it was ‘rigged,’ that the American people had been ‘robbed,’ and that the country was ‘under assault … by foreign powers.’”

Wearing his trademark cowboy hat, Finchem was photographed near the steps of the Capitol on the day of the riot. He also allegedly played a role in the effort to create a fake slate of electors that would have helped overturn Biden’s victory in Arizona.

Mark Finchem, Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state, speaks at a campaign rally attended by former U.S. President Donald Trump at Legacy Sports USA on Oct. 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Finchem turned down Here & Now’s request for an interview, but has laid out his priorities if he were to win. He calls for getting rid of voting machines, says millions of ballots should be counted by hand on election day, and co-sponsored failed legislation that would have mostly ended the state’s popular mail-in voting system.

“If you want to shut down the fraud, end early voting,” Finchem said in an interview with a conserative podcaster.

At a local PBS debate in September, when a moderator asked if he would have certified the 2020 presidential election, Finchem said without evidence that the results in the state’s most populous county “should have been set aside as irredeemably compromised.”

“It’s a clash. It’s a complete dichotomy of a choice for the voters of Arizona on how to move forward and how to conduct elections,” says Chuck Coughlin, a long-time political strategist in Arizona.

For years, Coughlin has helped Republicans get elected in Arizona. He worked on late Sen. John McCain’s campaign in the 1980s, but left the party when Trump began attacking his former boss.

Coughlin says the vast majority of Republicans — up to 80% — believe Finchem’s falsehoods about the 2020 elections. If Lake and Finchem win their races for governor and secretary of state, there will be legislation to eliminate early voting and to give lawmakers prememptory authority to overturn an election, he predicted. It would also be a sharp turn away from the Republican Party Coughlin once belonged to.

“It will be a party that is a complete reactionary element, incapable in my view of executing large-picture compromise,” he says.

A platform to ‘Save Democracy’

A slate of Democrats are running on a “Save Democracy” platform in Arizona. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

It’s rare for a secretary of state race to get this much attention, but it’s clear why the national spotlight is on Arizona. Democrats like Mary Keerins cannot forget the chaos of the 2020 election.

“That’s what’s brought us to this point,” said Keerins, who attended a recent fundraiser for candidate Adrian Fontes in Tucson.  “It’s extremely important we turn our Democrats and our independents out to vote again this year.”

In fact, Fontes, the former top election official in Maricopa County, will need support from independents to beat Finchem. Several polls show Fontes trailing his opponent. 

“We’ve got ourselves in a situation that is very, very dangerous for the survival of this Republic. And that’s not hyperbole. That’s real,” says Fontes from his campaign headquarters.

Secretary of State candidate Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, signs a copy of Time magazine for a voter in Tucson, Ariz. Time recently featured Fontes and other candidates running against election deniers in battleground states. (Peter O’Dowd/Here & Now)

But Fontes carries baggage of his own.

When he was Maricopa County recorder in 2020, Fontes decided to send every Democrat a primary ballot in the mail whether they had asked for one or not. The current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a fellow Democrat who’s now running for governor, said mailing the ballots would have been illegal.

The courts put a stop to it.

Fontes told Here & Now he has no regrets, even though his political opponents still use that decision against him. People were dying and afraid to leave their homes, he says.

“We were at the beginning of the pandemic,” he says. “It was an emergency.”

As for this year’s election, Fontes said the guardrails to protect American democracy are gone, “because of people like Mr. Finchem. Now we see the cracks in the system, which we never thought existed before, because we couldn’t imagine such a monstrous attitude toward our democracy.”

What Arizona voters want

Legal analysts generally agree that any secretary of state would need support from the legislature to enact any significant changes to Arizona’s election system. And Paul Bender, a law professor at Arizona State University, said there’s another legal guardrail: the voters themselves.

Arizona’s constitution allows residents to put a referendum on the ballot challenging new laws from the legislature.

“The people have the last word, no matter who is elected,” Bender said.

But not all voters see the stakes of this election with equal dread. At the meeting of Fountain Hills Republicans, Boe James doesn’t buy into election conspiracies that Trump rightfully won.

“I don’t believe the election was stolen,” he says.

But James is voting for Finchem anyway because he thinks the Republican is the best choice to keep future elections safe from people who are not eligible to vote legally.

And when asked if he believes democracy is on the ballot in November, James was clear: “I don’t believe that.”

Even on Jan. 6, the safeguards operated as they should, James says.

“If there was an insurrection, it didn’t succeed,” he says. “Democracy prevailed.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.