Bolding, Fontes discuss election reform in Secretary of State debate

Jeremy Beren

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State House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding speaking with attendees at the 2022 Legislative Forecast Luncheon at Chase Field.Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Phoenix, Ariz.) — A slate of Citizens Clean Elections Commission-sponsored informal debates has kicked off ahead of November's elections in Arizona. The state's PBS affiliate aired this first half-hour exchange of ideas between the top two Democratic Secretary of State candidates.

Arizona House of Representatives Minority Leader Reginald Bolding debated Adrian Fontes, the former Maricopa County Recorder and Marine Corps veteran, on Wednesday night. Bolding and Fontes are jostling for position prior to August's primary, three months before the election itself takes place, to replace incumbent Katie Hobbs.

The Democratic primary winner will take on the winner from a packed Republican field which includes LD 20 Representative Shawnna Bolick and Mark Finchem, the Donald Trump-backed lawmaker from Legislative District 11.

After opening statements, host Ted Simons began the lively conversation by asking the two candidates "what improvements would you bring to the office of Secretary of State?"

"What I'm going to use is my experience as an educator to make sure that every single classroom that has high school students that are ready for graduation has the ability to get registered to vote if they want to," Bolding said. "A civics study came out that said only 15 percent of our 18-year-olds are registered to vote. That's unacceptable, and we have to make sure we change that system."

Fontes spoke about his record as County Recorder, an office he held between 2017 and 2021, and focused on how his office would clear excessive red tape to better support Arizona's business owners — as well as making all relevant information listed and easier to find.

"The Secretary of State is also the chief librarian and archivist, and that's a source of trusted information for election administration," Fontes said. "We've got to communicate better from that office so that folks all across Arizona can make sure that they know not just what the rules are, but how they can exercise their rights as they choose to."

Bolding also argued that anxiety over access to election information means many Arizonans do not have the ability to hold their elected officials accountable.

"For everyday Arizonans, the system is much too difficult for them, and we need to make it simple, easy, and quick to actually go through that process," he said.

When the conversation turned to election security and absentee voting, Bolding wanted to be "crystal-clear" about how his office would convince skeptical voters to regain confidence in the system. Fontes wants greater and wider access to free, fair voting at a time when Republicans across the United States have tried to suppress this right.

"What we've seen over this last election cycle is that people, for partisan gain, have decided to say that our vote-by-mail system is not working," Bolding said. "As Secretary of State, just as I've done in the State Legislature, I will protect people's right to vote, their freedom to vote, and that's extremely important."

"We need to have vote centers across the entire state, so anyone can vote anywhere," Fontes countered. "We need to have a ballot-tracking system like we implemented in Maricopa County so that if you vote by mail, for example, you get a text message when your ballot is being mailed to you and when it gets returned to the election department.

"Do we need reform? The simple, clear answer is 'yes.' But that reform needs to come in a continuation of the progress that Arizona has had for 30 years, not stepping backward like some people want."

Fontes, who helped to administer the controversial but completely-secure 2020 election, was asked directly about the lingering concerns about "fraud."

"We have to be better at sharing the information about these systems that we created," he said. "I led that bipartisan team which included the Board of Supervisors, which was 4-1 Republican, through 2020 ... we took care of all the technical aspects, all the budgeting aspects, all the hiring aspects, all the IT security aspects in the Recorder's office, in conjunction with the County.

"Those folks who were critics before 2020 actually happened have all come around, because they know better now."

Bolding added it was time for Arizona to put 2020 firmly in the rearview mirror.

"We have to have an elected leader that is going to look forward, and assure everyone moving forward that they know for sure that we have fair, safe, and secure elections," he said.

In closing statements, Bolding and Fontes each touted their experience and unique set of qualifications as key factors in their respective bids to become Arizona's next top elections official.

"I have the experience, I have the know-how, and I can communicate clearly all of the values that we as Arizonans share across party lines to everyone in Arizona, so that we can bring ourselves together as a state and we can move ahead," Fontes said.

"I was raised by a single mother who had no more than a high school education," Bolding said. "But her single-most important dream in life was that her three young boys would have an opportunity to do and be whatever they wanted ... right now, we are facing an election and we're facing a democratic system that is looking to put partisanship over actual individuals and fair values. This election is critical, because we have to make sure that we are fighting to save democracy."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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