Election Transparency Can Be Achieved: Scrutineers, Part VIII

Maricopa County, vote here
Maricopa County election sign. Photo credit: sean hobson / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 28 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

Nearly 100 percent of votes cast in the US are counted by “black box” computers, generally owned by one of three private companies with partisan ties. These voting system vendors have insisted even government officials can’t see their software, claiming proprietary information.

These companies have successfully managed to keep private the means by which our votes are counted, even though the voting apparatuses are paid for by public dollars.

As a result, there is extremely limited insight into the actual mechanisms by which election results are determined.

Advocates rely on a few carefully developed methods of public oversight in an attempt to satisfy our desire to confirm that election results are accurate — and to demand a response when they’re not.

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, our guest on this week’s Scrutineers series podcast, has significantly increased the transparency and security of that county’s elections. Maricopa County, AZ, is the second largest voting jurisdiction in the nation, surpassed only by Los Angeles. Over half of the state’s population lives in the county, which has in the past been notorious for its lack of transparency. Now, Maricopa is a model for how election administration around the country can increase transparency.

Part of his secret? Listening to election security advocates.

Fontes shares his suggestions for effective advocacy, including one place advocates should be looking for election discrepancies where he says we rarely do.

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Full Text Transcript:

Emily Levy: Welcome to the Scrutineers Series. I’m Emily Levy, founder and director of scrutineers.org. I’m delighted to be collaborating with whowhatwhy.org to introduce a series of election protection podcasts designed to help you understand the risk to our elections from voter suppression to lack of security. We’ll be talking about what you can do to protect the voters and protect the votes. We’re training a fairness force to help make sure no one stops you from voting, and all votes are counted accurately.
Emily Levy: Today, I’m excited to welcome Adrian Fontes who is the Maricopa County Arizona Recorder. Maricopa is where Phoenix is, and it is not only the most populous county in Arizona, it’s actually more than half the state’s population. And it’s also the second largest voting jurisdiction in the nation, second only to Los Angeles. It’s considered to be a swing state in this year’s presidential race and also has a tight senate race. So there are a lot of eyes on <Florida?>  <Arizona?> right now and I’m really appreciative that Adrian has taken time today just before the election to be with us.
Emily Levy: Adrian Fontes has been the County Recorder since January of 2017, and prior to joining the recorder’s office, he worked as a prosecutor for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office. He worked for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Denver District Attorney though not all at the same time. He’s also has experience working in private practice and he’s a veteran of the US Marine Corps. He’s a member of the National Association of Counties and the Telecommunications and Technology Policy Steering Committee, and in August of last year 2019, he received the certified elections registration designation, which is the election professions highest accreditation, that was a bit of a tongue twister for some reason.
Emily Levy: And he also previously owned a mom-and-pop corner grocery store and community gathering space that was a response to the Downtown Phoenix food desert. Welcome, Adrian, thank you so much for being here.
Adrian Fontes: Emily, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Emily Levy: I snuck that last one in from your … it wasn’t in your official bio, but it was in your LinkedIn profile. And I think our listeners want to know about it.
Adrian Fontes: Some of the best times in my life were spent playing guitar on that porch late in the evening with neighbors, it was a lot of fun.
Emily Levy: Fantastic. So will you explain what it means to be the county recorder as opposed to the elections director because I think Maricopa also has an elections director, is that right?
Adrian Fontes: Sure, the Maricopa County Recorder is one of about a half a dozen independent constitutional officers. We are sort of a silos of the executive branch of county government. We’ve got a county attorney, a sheriff, an assessor, a treasurer, a recorder, and there’s one or two other ones. So we’re constitutional officers. We’re independent of the board of supervisors, which is more of like the legislative branch of our county government, if you will. The county recorder is responsible for keeping the permanent record, so when you buy or sell a house, the deeds and titles and all that fancy stuff gets filed in my office, we keep those records in perpetuity.
Adrian Fontes: Also, a lot of other government stuff gets filed in that side of the office. And then I’m the registrar of voters and in charge of all early voting, which is a big chunk of our elections here in Maricopa County in Arizona, a growing portion actually, pretty significantly. And then there’s an election department, which in 1955, was chartered to the recorder, that by statute was supposed to be part of the board of supervisors responsibility, but the recorder has been running all of the elections responsibilities, including hiring and firing the election director over that department for decades.
Adrian Fontes: We adjusted that model to get back closer to the statutory model recently, so now we have co-directors, the director of early voting and services, which I appoint. And then there’s a director of Election Day, and emergency voting, they sort of co-run all of elections of that other directors appointed by the board of supervisors. So we have a much better model now than we did in the past here in Maricopa County, thanks to some negotiations myself, and one of the prior chairs did so. It’s a little complicated, but I am still generally considered and still generally I’m the chief election officer for this…
Emily Levy: Yeah. Great, thank you. And what motivated you to seek this position?
Adrian Fontes: Well, so I got angry, and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Like the old movie, I think it was Network. What’s the name of the…?
Emily Levy: I think it was Network.
Adrian Fontes: Yeah, I mean, it was just like that. In 2016 in our presidential primary which in Arizona, we call the Presidential Preference Election, many folks remember March 22. The day that lives in infamy where we had four and five hour long lines here in Arizona, and in the metro Phoenix Area, Maricopa County, we’re not used to waiting for stuff. And folks were really, really upset and I was very upset. There were some estimates that said close to 130,000 people couldn’t vote, because they had to wait so long in lines. And it was a real problem and I felt like we had to have a conversation about it.
Adrian Fontes: I ran against a 28-year incumbent, she was in her seventh term. I had never been opposed by a Democrat and I am a registered Democrat. And so, I ran so that we could have the conversation, because we really needed some reform in the administration of our elections here. I ended up winning, which nobody expected, least of all me. And now I get-
Emily Levy: Surprised.
Adrian Fontes: Yeah, now I get to love this. I feel like Robert Redford at the end of that one movie where he became a US Senator, was sitting behind the desk at the end, looking around saying, “Now what?” But we got some stuff done.
Emily Levy: So what were the biggest challenges you faced when you took office and how did you address them?
Adrian Fontes: Well, there were three major challenges that we had showing up. First and foremost, the prior administration really operated under a culture of heroes, if you will. That’s where, for example, you’ve got five people in a section or a division of the office, one person retires, or leaves for whatever reason, they never replaced that person. So four people would take on the job and split it up, then if somebody else left, they still wouldn’t replace that person. And so now you’ve got three people doing the work of five, and it was inefficient, till we didn’t have enough people. That was the first big challenge.
Adrian Fontes: The second big challenge was funding. They had been operating under the idea that all government has to be underfunded forever. And you can’t do that with elections, you have to have the resources necessary to serve the public. And the third was, we had this lingering burden of technology that was really, really old and really inefficient and designed for a much smaller jurisdiction. When I took over, we were over 2.1 million registered voters and we were operating on eight bit technology.
Adrian Fontes: Now when I say eight bits, I’m not talking about bytes, I’m taking about bits, ones and zeros, only eight of them in a row. And we had to program sometimes, well, thousand different balance styles with just eight bits. So our programmers are geniuses, but we were barely squeezing by. So it was people, it was funding and it was technology all of which needed-
Emily Levy: And what was the election system that you were using then?
Adrian Fontes: We had our big scanners with a 400-Cs that were the old Sequoia system. Dominion election services have been servicing us for many years before I showed up. In fact, Dominion’s got a couple of people who are permanently employed and stationed here in our warehouse. That’s their place of business, because we’re such a large jurisdiction that they support. We basically give them office space as part of agreement with them because they’re always here and we need them and we’re probably one of their biggest clients if not their biggest client. So we work hand in glove with them and that system also used the old, they were like the Eagle 1000 polling place scanners, I think, the circuit 19-
Emily Levy: I vaguely remember those.
Adrian Fontes: … 86 I think. So they were optical spears with those big…
Emily Levy: Eagle Optech, is that-
Adrian Fontes: Yeah, the Optech. And so, we had a couple thousand of those things that we would mess around with. I think there’s only one or two jurisdictions in the country that are left that still use those. We just got rid of them last year.
Emily Levy: And what did you get instead?
Adrian Fontes: Well, we went through our regular RFP process, and so we have these new fancy dancy, we still use Dominion. They won the contract. We have some high speeds, I can’t remember what they’re called. But they’re the big German made high speed scanners that took us from 3,000 ballots an hour to anywhere between six and 8000 ballots an hour. So we’ve got nine of those. And we’ve got the, gosh, I’m going to mess it up. We’ve got the new ballot marking devices and the scanners that come with-
Emily Levy: It looks like that Democracy Suite is what you have, from what I looked up. That’s a combination of the image cast precinct…
Adrian Fontes: Right, it’s the ICPs and ICXs and EIEIOs and I don’t remember all the letters and names and stuff, I’m not a technician. But I can tell you that the system is working like a dream and I’m really glad that we can do the things that we can do now because we’re a lot more efficient and a lot more transparent.
Emily Levy: So I want to really talk about transparency because, from my perspective, as an election security advocate for the last 16 years, I know that these electronic systems are not transparent, that the way the systems are designed, there’s input and there’s output and you can’t see what’s going on inside because it happens inside the software and can be manipulated by malware, there can be software errors, because there’s so many lines of code that are involved in the software. And so I’m wondering, I know, transparency is important to you, and it’s part of why I wanted you on the show is that I know you’ve worked really hard on transparency. So let’s talk about what ways you’ve found to make the system as transparent as possible.
Adrian Fontes: Well, first and foremost, we insist on having paper ballots across the board, and Arizona has new three hand-count audits at the end of every election. We’re very pleased actually, the results during the primary 2020 that we just had this August, our hand count audit came out the exact the first time, 100%, we have never seen that before, we’ve always had to go back and try to figure out what the deal was, why these numbers are one or two votes off here or there. This time, it was perfect the first time out, and we were very excited about that. In so far as paper ballots, the actual physical manifestation of the voters intent, we have that. So that’s a huge, huge…
Emily Levy: That’s a paper ballot that’s hand marked by the voter, except for voters that need a ballot marking device for accessibility reasons.
Adrian Fontes: That’s correct, and even the ballot marking devices will list the voters’ choice, not just the barcode or QR code. So they will be able to verify that those are the selections that they’ve made before we put those into the tabulating devices at the vote centers or at the precinct.
Emily Levy: Well, theoretically, that’s true. I’ve got a little bit of a bone to pick with that because it’s the barcode that’s actually read when you put that and so if by any chance, there was malware that caused the list of votes that the voter had marked to be different from what’s encoded in the barcode, there would be no way for the voter to verify that.
Adrian Fontes: That’s true. And we also use those ballots in the hand count audit. And so we don’t exclude any votes from the hand count, whether you will count the votes that were reproduced for some reason that may have been submitted electronically by military and overseas voters, whether they’re made by these ballot marking devices, which illustrate the … ‘Cause human beings can’t read the QR code, but it’s human beings that do the hand count audit, so those are part of that. So I get your concern, I feel you, but I think we do have a stopgap for that as well. Then on the physical side of things, we’ve taken great pains to really make our system look and feel about as good as it can.
Adrian Fontes: Every single one of our scanners has two cords coming off of it. One is a power cord that goes into whatever the extension cord is on the ground and the other is the digital cable that goes up into a rack that is suspended lower than the ceiling. All the racks lead those cables directly into a server that is in a glass room. We built a sealed room, all the cables go in and you can actually see the connections of the cables into the back of the server through the glass room. The public can see this, they just walk into the front door, they look through the ballot tabulation center into it.
Emily Levy: So why is that important, to be able to see the cables?
Adrian Fontes: Yeah, every single cable is visible and we did this on purpose. And we really recreated that room and put the cabling in the way that we did on purpose so that you could see it. It didn’t used to be that way, they used to be behind a closed door in an office and couldn’t really see in and you couldn’t really see what the connectivity was of those cables. And that room is also equipped. The larger room or the kind of the glass room it’s inside of, the larger room is equipped with 24/7 cameras that you can log on to via the internet. That’s where the electronic adjudication happens.
Adrian Fontes: The ballots come in one door from the vault, they go out the other door into a separate section of the vault, which has a dry suppression system in it that’s brand new. We’ve literally just finished building it about two weeks ago.
Emily Levy: That’s to keep moisture control, is that what that’s for?
Adrian Fontes: Well, the ballot is in there because the rest of the warehouse, excuse me, the rest of the warehouse is equipped with a wet suppression system.
Emily Levy: I’m not sure what that is, a dry suppression or wet suppression system. I haven’t heard those expressions before.
Adrian Fontes: Wet suppression is just basically sprinklers. So if you’ve got a ballot tabulation room with a lot of electronic equipment scanners and paper ballots, and you have a fire, guess what? You’re going to lose a lot if there is a fire versus bringing a batch of ballots in, running them through the scanners and taking them back out. And in and out where they’re coming from and going back to is one vault with two divisions in it. And it’s all dry suppression. So if for whatever reason there’s a fire in the vault, which doesn’t have any electronic equipment in it, except for the cameras in the ceiling, the ballots are safe and secure in a place where they won’t get wet.
Emily Levy: Because it’s sucking the oxygen out rather than putting water in? Is that how there’s fire?
Adrian Fontes: No, it’s not a wet suppression, it’s a dry suppression. I think they use ash, I want to say halon, is it?
Emily Levy: I have no idea. This is all news to me. Let’s go back to the cords. What is it that you want people to understand from the fact that they can see the cord?
Adrian Fontes: Well, there’s no connectivity except back to the server. It is a closed system. So when the ballot gets put into one of the scanners, it gets scanned, that data goes directly from the scanner itself in the batch to the server. And we do have the electronic adjudication system so if there is a selection on one of the ballots, that needs to be adjudicated that pops out, it’s audited by a bipartisan electronic adjudication team, that then gets out into the tabulation. But not only is there an electronic log attached to the image of the ballot, we do a separate paper log as well.
Adrian Fontes: So we can cross reference by hand what those two citizen electronic adjudication board folks are doing, we can cross check that against the electronic record if we ever need to go back and do an audit.
Emily Levy: So let’s make sure everyone knows what adjudication means.
Adrian Fontes: So adjudication effectively means this, if a voter for example, in a contest, pick one, you got candidate A, candidate B, let’s say somebody fills in the little bubble for candidate A, and then he’s like, “Oops, I should have voted for candidate B,” then they fill in the bubble for candidate B, and they draw a line through candidate A, or they make a little notation that says not this one, this one, or yes here, no there, whatever the voters intent is. If the electronic adjudication board can determine that intent, based on an image capture of that contest on the ballot, and that’s all they see, they don’t see the rest of the ballot, they can’t see what the voter’s looking at in other races, so there’s a lot of integrity, that one selection, that one contest.
Adrian Fontes: If those two board workers can determine the voter’s intent, then they will go ahead and determine the voter voted for candidate B, not candidate A, because we can determine intent. They go ahead and make that log into the electronic record of that ballot, it gets added to the ballot, it is on the same document, the same electronic document that the image is on. So you can see the original image, you can see what the determination is and you can see who the adjudicators were, that’s all in the clinic record, then they keep, the auditor or the electronic adjudicators keep a separate paper record of that action that they just did, so that if anybody wants to go back and say, “Oh, they were changing votes,” you go back and say, “Well, here’s the image. Here’s what they determine. Here’s what they log in electronically. Here’s the paper log of that as well.”
Adrian Fontes: So we have a redundancy that’s not even required by law, and it goes above and beyond what Dominion’s system even calls for. So they don’t call for the paper log on their system, and that’s what’s certified by EAC. We’ve got above and beyond that…
Emily Levy: Fantastic. This isn’t for every vote, but for the votes that the scanners are not able to count?
Adrian Fontes: Oh, yes, correct for overloads, or where there’s a pindrop, a bleed through, something like that, yes.
Emily Levy: Great. And so one thing I’ve been wondering, because I know that there are election protection advocates, election security advocates in Arizona who’ve been working for a long time on improving the election systems. And we have a lot of folks doing that kind of work who listen to our show. So is there anything you could say about what’s been the role of those folks in improving the systems in Maricopa County or in Arizona in general?
Adrian Fontes: Yeah, well, first and foremost, when I got elected in 2017, they asked to meet with me, and I said, “Sure, let’s meet.” And one of the great things about that first meeting was they came in with fresh eyes, and they said, “Listen, we have had concerns in the past, and we want to work with you to alleviate these concerns. Here’s our attitude. Here’s our overall goal. Here’s what we’d like to accomplish.”
Adrian Fontes: And that first meeting, I think, was one of the most fruitful meetings and really opened the door because they came in with a tone of, “Look, we want to help you do the things that you said you wanted to do. You said you wanted to be more transparent, you said you wanted to improve the voters experience, and you said you wanted to really kind of open the doors and letting the sunshine have more accountability in the office and more security,” and I said, “Yes, yes, yes to all of that.”
Adrian Fontes: So they said, “Let us be that other perspective, let us be that other set of eyes and ears. And if you just listen to what we have to say, we don’t always have to agree, but at least we’ve got a seat at the table.” And I thought that was a really great approach. From that moment forward, I’ve had conversations with the folks that sit in that seat, and there’s a whole bunch of them. One specifically, John Roberts Brakey, Don Kishawn, your listeners have probably heard of him or talked to him.
Emily Levy: Yeah, I’ve worked with him actually.
Adrian Fontes: I’ll tell you what, an interesting personal story, he knows one of my dad’s cousins, who worked concrete down in Tucson back in an old former career of John’s. Anyway, fun kind of a deal. But he’s a neat guy and we get to talk a bit and I listen to what he has to say. And again, here’s the important thing, he and I don’t always agree on everything and he pushes the envelope with me, but he does it in a respectful way and I appreciate it. And he listens to me also, because he understands that I have budgetary restrictions, I have people restrictions, I have technology restrictions and more than any of that, I have legal restrictions. There are things that the law allows, and there are things that the law doesn’t allow, and regardless what anybody thinks or wants, I got to follow the law.
Emily Levy: Absolutely. And so if folks who are listening are doing advocacy work in places where the chief election officer in their jurisdiction is not as transparency- minded as you are, what do you think are the most important things for them to be doing as a way of providing public oversight for elections?
Adrian Fontes: Well, I mean, there’s no substitute for conversation, never. Personal relationships are really the way that things get done. That’s how the world turns. And I’ve always thought that that was the best way to get anything done. Sometimes those things need to be fostered over a very long period of time when values are not specifically aligned, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing and it can be hard work sometimes. Other times, it’s just a question of building those relationships through listening carefully to what folks have to say.
Adrian Fontes: You can be really, really defensive as an administrator in any area, but particularly elections administration. And I’m sure some of your listeners have run up against this, when the tone is almost always accusatory, you’re doing this wrong, you’re doing that wrong, you’re not doing enough of this, you’re not doing enough of that, and you have people who are either elected or appointed, who A, don’t have the resources, B, don’t have the resources and C, don’t have the resources, it’s really, really hard from the perspective of an election minister.
Adrian Fontes: Now, my perspective is quite different because we managed to get the resources. So we did some, we did some fun stuff, and some fun negotiations to make this happen, brought some more stakeholders into the game and they’re the ones with the pockets. So we could do a lot. But again, that’s critically important. So I guess the best advice I can give is, listen carefully, and be considerate of the position that the other person is in. It’s not always nefarious, and it’s not always mal intended, you don’t get what you’re asking for. Sometimes it’s just a question of, I’ve got priorities, and you might not be the top priority and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
Emily Levy: Thank you. I think that’s really helpful. One of the questions I have about Maricopa County in terms of the practices that I understand are being used there, and I’m in San Francisco, California, I’m not in Arizona, is that you use vote centers. In other words, not precincts, but people can vote at any of the locations that are available in the county, regardless of where in the county they live, and they’re registered. And I know that those can really increase convenience and they also provide some security challenges, including, as far as I know, to have vote centers, you really have to use electronic poll books, which are another software-based system that has significant vulnerabilities. And I’m wondering how you’ve dealt with those additional security challenges of using vote centers?
Adrian Fontes: Well, in so far as our voter checking system and our ballot creation system, it’s all integrated. We made it ourselves. I’m a lucky guy in that I have an IT department of about a dozen folks, maybe a little more, that work hand in glove with the election department to give those folks what they needed. We have a one off system that is unique to Maricopa County, we wrote the code here and effectively what it does is it integrates the voter registration system, the ballot creation/voter check-in system, and the sort of the, not the tabulation system, because that’s separate, but the sort of the ballot processing system for signature verification.
Adrian Fontes: Each voter has its own record, or has their own record, they have their own voter ID number in our system, and so forth, when they get registered and then if they either check in or get mailed a ballot, that ballot goes out under that particular voter’s number. When we get it back, either because they voted in person or we received the ballot back, flags the system, and then we do the signature verification on the other side. So insofar as-
Emily Levy: When it comes back, the ballot itself does not have their identifying number on it, I assume?
Adrian Fontes: No, that’s correct. It is…
Emily Levy: Important thing to…
Adrian Fontes: Yes, yes. Thank you for making that clarification. Yes, it’s the affidavit envelope that has the signature and the voter’s ID number on it. At the point of processing where the citizen boards separate the envelope, and the ballot, then you have anonymity. And in that 11 step process, we kind of balance out the envelopes that have been signature verified with the ballots. We know how many come in, we know how many come out, and then the ballots end up going to tabulation. But in so far as secure data security is concerned, from the voter registration record, we have sort of the mother server, where that data kind of lives.
Adrian Fontes: And then we have, and I won’t get too much into describing the details, because obviously we don’t want to have what our infrastructure looks like out there. We’ve got what we use day in and day out to feed the mother record, and that system that we use is attached live to our signature verification system and to the vote centers.
Emily Levy: So the voter comes in if a voter has received a ballot in the mail, and they decide that they want to come vote at a vote center, when they arrive, can they cancel that mail ballot and vote in person?
Adrian Fontes: Well, they can’t, we can, we do.
Emily Levy: Okay. Then they can ask to have that happen.
Adrian Fontes: Right, if you have a ballot in the mail coming to you, and you’re like, “Forget about it, I just want to vote in person,” which is what a lot of people are doing today, they’ll just come in and check in and the minute they check in, then that other affidavit envelope is effectively canceled.
Emily Levy: So if they never received their mail ballot, they still have a way to vote?
Adrian Fontes: Absolutely. And that’s one [crosstalk] vote centers are important. And one other reasons vote centers are important is because of the access the voters have. So not only do we have security concerns that I think we’ve dealt with really well, but the access issue is an important one. So one of the things that people say is, “Well, Adrian, before you got elected, there were 700 precincts with polling places, 748 of them for voters to vote out on Election Day, and now you’re down to less than 200. You’re crushing access out there.”
Adrian Fontes: And I’m like, “Okay, if you’re only using that one metric, which is a false leader, then that’s fine. But what you’re ignoring is the fact that 27 days before Election Day, I’ve opened seven vote centers, and anyone can go to any of them. Two weeks before election day, I’m opening four dozen more, including on nights and weekends, and any voter can vote at any of them. And then a week later, which is a week before Election Day, we’re going to take that number up to about 100 across Maricopa County, so anybody can vote anywhere.” So we don’t have an Election Day where one voter goes to one place.
Adrian Fontes: So when you say 748 for the voter, you’re really only saying one per voter. But now you’ve got seven for three weeks, or two and a half weeks, then you take that up to 50 for the next week and then you take that up to 100 for the following week, up to 200 on Election Day, how many more opportunities, how much more access do voters have? It’s exponential. And in the old model where you had 748 precincts, you had 748 opportunities for thousands, tens of thousands of pre-printed ballots to get misused, miscategorized, misaligned and so forth. There was a significant logistical nightmare. And here’s something that I think your folks ought to pay close attention to. so listen carefully, Emily, because I want to…
Emily Levy: Okay, I’m listening.
Adrian Fontes: You’re on fire with this one.
Emily Levy: He’s shaking his finger at me actually right now.
Adrian Fontes: I’m shaking my finger at you because election security people never consider this. What happens to the ballot audit from Election Day at pre-printed polling places? Where’s the ballot audit? How many ballots showed up versus how many voters checked in versus how many voters or how many ballots were counted at that polling place? That audit, how many folks are actually looking at those numbers?
Emily Levy: Folks are photographing poll tapes, which have some of those numbers on them.
Adrian Fontes: But are they comparing to the number of pre-printed ballots which were issued to that polling place? I would challenge that ballot audit from the number of pre-printed ballots in the polling place through to the number of voters that checked in and then the number of ballots…
Emily Levy: That are leftover. That’s a really good point.
Adrian Fontes: … is rarely, and I mean, rarely looked at. And you know why I know it’s rarely looked at? Because in Maricopa County, that ballot audit was suspended after the November election in 2016. My predecessor stopped that audit dead in its tracks. I don’t know why and I don’t care. But when I got in, that January 2017, and then February and I started realizing how things worked, I ordered that audit to be restarted and it could never be finished. It could not be completed, because of the nature of the records. Certain records were under seal, everything was over in the custody of the treasurer and the only way to get it out of that custody of the county treasurer – because that’s what the law says – the only way to get all of that stuff back would have been to go through a court order and to sue and I didn’t have any reason to sue. Not having that audit, you don’t have a reason to sue on that.
Adrian Fontes: So the question then becomes, when you don’t have a vote center, where you’re printing an individual ballot for every single voter that walks in, no more, no less, where you’re putting those ballots into an envelope that’s going to be signature verified, which is essentially the ballot by mail system, you just give it to them in person, instead of sending it in the mail. When you can have that kind of accountability, one signature inside of an envelope, you’ve got that ballot, per voter, it’s a world of difference.
Emily Levy: So at the voting center, when people vote in person, their ballots still goes into an envelope that they sign?
Adrian Fontes: Not on Election Day proper, no.
Emily Levy: Okay.
Adrian Fontes: But we still are just issuing one ballot per voter that checks in and we’re only printing one ballot per voter that checks in with the control sheet. So we have a lot more checks and balances in that system and our ballot audit is naturally way more accurate than it would have been under the old system.
Emily Levy: That’s fascinating. And it gives me about 15 more questions I want to ask you that we don’t have time to ask. I’ve had a couple more questions I want to squeeze in, do you have a few more minutes?
Adrian Fontes: Absolutely.
Emily Levy: Thank you so much. So you mentioned when you were running for election, and I discovered in the process of setting up this call that you’re actually in a race now, which I hadn’t realized that you’re running for re-election. And I know that that can really raise questions for people when someone is both running an election and running for election in that same place. And I wonder how you handle that in a way that that allows voters to have confidence that things are on the up and up.
Adrian Fontes: We handle it very carefully, and I stay the hell away from the operation during the time when live ballots are anywhere near the ballot tabulation system. I haven’t been in the side of the warehouse where the ballots are handled at all since they’ve been printed life balance in there and I won’t go into that side of the building, although I have an office on the other side of the building, with a separate entrance that I pop in and out of once in a while to do a Facebook Live video or something like that. But then I get out of there. COVID helps me be away from there because I do most of my work right here in my home office.
Adrian Fontes: But here’s the other most important thing about this. We’ve got a big enough office and a big enough operation that the career professionals who’ve been there before me and some of them may very well be there after me, depending on what happens this November. They’re the ones running this thing. And I think people forget that folks in positions like mine don’t do the day-to-day handling of ballots, we don’t do the day-to-day handling of the tabulation systems. Those are done by folks who are on regular county payroll. They’re not beholden to me in any way during this sort of process. And they believe in the integrity of the system as well. So does this thing operate to a degree on faith? Yeah, it does. But the reality is we’ve got folks who don’t care who the elected is, and they don’t care what the results are.
Adrian Fontes: These folks see elections at least four times a year every year in multiple jurisdictions out of, particularly Maricopa County. We’ve got two dozen cities, we’ve got a couple dozen school districts, actually more than a couple dozen, I think we have three or four dozen school districts. We’ve got fire districts, waste management districts, we’ve got congressional districts that have special elections, we’ve got elections all the time. So we’re busy all the time with this stuff, and frankly, it’s enough to keep the lights on, and they have to deal with all the rest of this stuff, where people say, “Oh, well, there’s this filling here, and that filling over there.”
Adrian Fontes: These are folks just like you and me. And let me just add this, every step of the way has partisan observers deeply involved in the system. In the tabulation room, we cannot and will not scan a ballot, unless there are observers from the political parties in the room with us, just won’t do it. We won’t be processing ballots, unless there are political observers in the rooms with us. And all of our boards are managed, and when I say board, this is to folks that actually handle the ballots, they have to be of opposing political parties. Even the electronic adjudication that I talked about earlier, these are opposing political parties. And so all the way through the entire system, there’s checks and balances across the board.
Adrian Fontes: And I know very well that there are people in the very warehouse that I run who will not vote for me, they just won’t and I’m okay with that because I’m an American first, and I’m a partisan like third or fourth, like singer songwriter comes before that at some stage of the game.
Emily Levy: And a father comes before that.
Adrian Fontes: Oh, dad comes way before you even the rest of it. So I understand the concerns, I don’t think that they’re a legitimate concerns, but I think folks, forget about all the rest of the people involved, all of the other checks and balances that are engaged throughout these systems to keep the integrity up. And I can’t speak for other jurisdictions around the country, but in Arizona, we’ve got a really, really great crew of professional election administrators who are not political. Even the county recorders associations, 15 counties, there’s 15 of us electeds, you’ll see disagreements on policy, and it’ll be like two republicans and a democrat against two democrats and a republican over here depending on the issue. So it’s just, that’s just kind of the way it is in this really weird little corner of government.
Emily Levy: Thank you. And my final question is, what’s still on your wish list to do to make the system even better than it is now?
Adrian Fontes: Well, we have a software architecture on the inside of our system that has been Frankensteined together over the last several decades. And because of sort of the nature of the changes that we’ve made, that was one of the things that we decided was going to be sort of a second term tackle. The entire website needs to be updated, the architecture behind the website, which is utilized by literally millions of people, because it’s the record website, people look stuff up all the records that we have, we’ve got a whole bunch of the internal infrastructure from a technology perspective that needs upgrading. We’ve got a lot more work to do on the security side, but a lot of that has to do with sort of personnel security, and infrastructure security, that I think needs improving.
Adrian Fontes: We’re in really good shape right now. We’re working very closely with law enforcement and federal intelligence agencies and other folks to make sure sort of to watch the perimeter for us. But internally, I think we can do more there. And then most critically, I think, is sort of the outreach and education. I think the most important things we can do is tell the public the story of what it means to run an election. This is not easy work… understand that just better than anybody else. We need to get better at storytelling, we need to get better at sharing with folks how it is that their elections run so that we can break down the barriers of misunderstanding, of suspicion, sort of the conspiracy theories and all that kind of fun stuff, which can be engaging, but it can be destructive too, and we don’t want that, we want things to go well, we want folks to trust the career professionals that do this thing because they’re just you and me. They’re regular citizens, retired teachers, those sorts of folks who were actually running the show.
Emily Levy: Well, I think that election protection advocates and election officials share the desire for there to be voter confidence, for there to be public confidence in the elections. And I appreciate that you have approached trying to increase public confidence by increasing the reasons for confidence rather than some things I see in other places where they’re placating the public and giving false reassurances. I Don’t believe that you’re doing that.
Adrian Fontes: No, voters aren’t dumb, and I think that there’s a lot of folks in this line of work who come to the interactions with the public with a little bit of an attitude of condescension. Our systems are complicated, but look, people out there work with complicated systems every single day. I mean, have you tried to manage a mass transit system in a major metropolitan area if you’re not from that town? It can be nerve wracking. Just that, how do I catch a bus from here to there or a train or whatever combination of that? Until you’ve been there and you’ve seen it and you’re in it, you can tell someone I’ll get on the, I don’t know, what do you guys have out there and taffeta, they’ll get on the orange line from here to there and then jump on the tube or whatever you have. I don’t know.
Adrian Fontes: I don’t even know, but it’s something simple to someone who has seen it and has used it. Election administration is not dissimilar. We’ve got a lot of complicated moving parts in these systems. We want to teach folks about them, or we ought to want to teach folks about them so that it is more familiar so that we can rebuild a lot of the trust that’s been lost over the years because of the lack of communication, because of the way that we’ve sort of closed the door to these things across the country, we need to blow the doors open and let the sunshine in like I said earlier, that’s the way we’re going to rebuild confidence in these incredibly important systems.
Emily Levy: Thank you so very much. And I want to give a special thanks to you for taking time out right before the election to be with us today, explain all this. You’ve been listening to Adrian Fontes, who is the County Recorder from Maricopa County, Arizona, where Phoenix is. This is Emily Levy from scrutineers.org in The Scrutineers Series. Thanks so much, Adrian for being with us and thanks to the audience for listening.
Adrian Fontes: Super happy, thank you so much, Emily.
Emily Levy: You can find a rough transcript of each episode at whowhatwhy.org/podcast. You’re invited to get involved in the election protection movement by joining Scrutineers at scrutineers.org. That’s S-C-R-U-T-I-N-E-E-R-S.O-R-G. Whether you’re a seasoned activist or advocate, or have never before worked for social justice, you are welcome. Both WhoWhatWhy and Scrutineers depend on your support to keep our work going. If you appreciate what we do, please donate through our websites. You’ll find WhoWhatWhy at whowhatwhy.org/donate. Remember to check your voter registration and help others do the same and vote in every election. Thanks for listening.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from New Jersey National Guard / Flickr, Adrian Fontes, and Scrutineers.

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