Stephen Richer. Photo via Steptoe & Johnson LLP
After days of chipping away at Adrian Fontes’s lead, Republican attorney Stephen Richer has pulled ahead in the race for Maricopa County recorder.
For the first time since the first tally was announced on election night, Richer leads the Democratic incumbent. Maricopa County’s Saturday morning count put him over the top up by 2,445 votes in a race where he trailed by nearly 90,000. As of Sunday evening, Fontes had cut Richer’s lead down to 1,928
There are still somewhere between 23,725 and 38,355 ballots left to be tallied in Maricopa County, depending on how many remaining provisional ballots and unverified early ballots are ultimately counted. There are 18,455 early ballots and 5,270 valid provisional ballots that will be counted. In addition, there are 10,930 provisional ballots that could still be verified and 3,700 early ballots that require the voters to certify their signatures before they can be counted.
Voters have until Tuesday to remedy the deficiencies with those ballots, such as mismatched signatures or lack of photo identification at the polls.
Richer said he’s not taking anything for granted, given the number of remaining ballots in the county.
“It’s better to be up than down,” he said.
If he does end up winning, Richer said he’ll “approach this office with an extreme amount of humility and appreciation for the fact that, like, as close to literally as you can get of half the voters” chose Fontes over him.
“I’ll try and be mindful and respectful of that as the administrator of the office, should we be lucky enough to be in that position,” he said.
With the exception of Sheriff Paul Penzone, who notched a blowout win over Republican Jerry Sheridan for a second term in office, Republicans are poised to sweep the countywide offices in Maricopa. Fontes was the only other Democratic incumbent in a countywide office, and was the last to hold his lead.
On election night, Democrats led every countywide race. But as the vote count continued, Republicans took the advantage.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel, who was rushed to the hospital on election night for emergency surgery after suffering bleeding on the brain, now leads Democratic challenger Julie Gunnigle by about 35,000 votes. Republican John Allen holds a comfortable lead in the race for county treasurer, as does incumbent Republican County Assessor Eddie Cook. And Steve Watson, the incumbent county superintendent of schools, overtook Democratic challenger Jeanne Casteen on Friday, and now leads by about 9,500 votes.
The only pickup Democrats could still make at the county level would be on the Board of Supervisors, where Jevin Hodge still holds a lead of just 1,256 votes over Republican Supervisor Jack Sellers in East Valley-based District 1. Democrat Whitney Walker led Supervisor Bill Gates for much of the week in District 3, which covers much of Phoenix, but Gates is now ahead by about 5,200 votes.
If Richer’s hold leads, it would bring an end to an often rocky tenure in office for Fontes, whose term as recorder has been marked by controversy. Fontes repeatedly demonstrated a tendency to push the boundaries of the law in order to expand or ensure voting rights, especially as election officials across the state and country grappled with the COVID-19 epidemic.
Shortly before the 2018 general election, Fontes announced that he would give all voters whose signatures on their early ballots didn’t appear to match the signatures an opportunity to confirm that they had in fact signed their ballots. Election officials use those signatures to verify the identities of voters who cast early ballots, and though they’ve long given most voters a chance to “cure” their ballots if the signatures don’t appear to match, that was an opportunity denied voters whose ballots didn’t arrive until election day.
A judge ordered that all counties adopt the same policy, and the legislature enshrined that policy into law a year later, imposing a week-long curing period.
Other proposals by Fontes haven’t had the same success in the courtroom.
In March, Fontes announced that he would send early ballots to all registered Democrats for the presidential preference election, not just voters who signed up for the state’s Permanent Early Voting List or who personally requested early ballots. After Attorney General Mark Brnovich took Fontes to court, a judge blocked him from carrying out his plan.
More recently, Fontes sent instructions with all early ballots during the 2020 primary election informing voters that if they mistakenly voted for a candidate, they could cross out the name and vote for someone else. Though such votes will be counted, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the instruction itself violated state law.
Richer campaigned on a platform of bringing an end to Fontes’s brash, aggressive style, pledging on his campaign website to “deliver fair and competent elections” while ending “partisan activism” and “rogue policymaking.” He told the Arizona Republic that wants to “make the Recorder’s Office boring again.”
Fontes could not be reached for comment.
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