The top election official in one of the most crucial battleground states for the 2024 presidential race has reached his limit.
In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes described his mounting “frustration” at President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice and Attorney General Merrick Garland for failing to respond to a wave of threats against election workers and officials with the urgency that he believes is necessary. The surge in death threats and intimidation efforts directed against election staff across the country, Fontes warns, could have disastrous consequences, not just for the expected 2024 election between Biden and Donald Trump, but for years to come.
“As cautious a person as Attorney General Merrick Garland is, I think he is being far too cautious here, when it comes to these investigations and prosecutions of threats against election administrators and election workers,” Fontes says. “I have a lot of respect for the attorney general, but he is not being nearly aggressive enough on this threat, which is imperiling our democracy, and he and the department are not devoting nearly enough resources to it. This should be treated like the emergency that it is.”
Fontes came to office in 2023 as Arizona’s secretary of state having defeated Republican state Rep. Mark Finchem, one of the loudest voices promoting Donald Trump’s anti-democratic lies about a “stolen” 2020 election. Fontes is currently dealing with a flood of threats against the state’s election workforce still largely inspired by those lies and Trump’s election-denial movement. Trump and some of his most prominent and influential allies have been working for years to find new, creative ways to tilt the 2024 election in Trump’s favor.
Earlier this month, Garland gave a speech warning about “a deeply disturbing spike in threats against those who serve the public,” including “those who administer elections.”
Fontes tells Rolling Stone that he met with Justice Department officials last year to demand they be “as aggressive as the law will allow” in prosecuting threats against election workers, and “as assertive as possible when celebrating convictions” in order to deter future ones. DOJ officials pledged to “take it under advisement,” Fontes says, but so far, he hasn’t seen much in the way of action.
“I think they’re worried about political blowback from some of the radicals in elected office in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “I think they’re more worried about their appropriations than they are about keeping the peace and preserving our democracy. It’s a crying shame when they put the physical health of their agency up against their actual duties to protect people and to protect our democracy.”
Fontes does not blame Biden personally for the situation, he says, because the department must be allowed to operate independently and without pressure from the president.
John D. Keller, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s public integrity section, says in a statement to Rolling Stone: “The Justice Department will continue to aggressively prosecute cases involving threats to election workers to the fullest extent of the law. Recent convictions and sentences demonstrate that federal courts and the department are taking threats to the election community extremely seriously, and there will be consequences commensurate with the seriousness of the activity.”
Keller leads the day-to-day efforts of the Election Threats Task Force, created by Garland in 2021. The task force, which combines the work of prosecutors from the DOJ’s civil rights, national security, public integrity, and criminal sections, has charged 15 defendants for making threats against election officials — including several officials in Arizona — and convicted 11 thus far, according to a Justice Department fact sheet.
A DOJ spokesperson says the Election Threats Task Force has engaged with Fontes’ office at least four times in the last 18 months.
With the 2024 presidential election drawing closer, the tide of violence-tinged venom is likely to rise even more. But in Arizona, where Fontes serves, much of the damage has already been done, as the state suffers from historically high turnover among election officials, a number of whom are either too tired or scared of the abuse, he says.
With officials from county recorders down to rural poll workers facing growing harassment and threats of violence, Fontes says the Justice Department should be treating the problem as “domestic terrorism.”
“We’ve got people who are threatening violence or committing acts of violence to achieve a political end,” he says. “How are these people not being treated like terrorists?”
Fontes’ office has had to pay for live shooter training for its workforce, he says, because “that’s the world we live in now.” In November, Fontes testified that one Arizona county election official had her two dogs poisoned “as a means of intimidation.”
“If this was threats against police officers or prosecutors, boy, they’d be on this like white on rice,” Fontes says of the DOJ. “But it’s on election administrators, so they seem to be much less interested and far less willing to help us protect our democracy.”
Fontes believes that Justice Department officials are taking the election workforce for granted — when those lower-level bureaucrats and workers doing their jobs empowers those in the DOJ to do theirs.
“They have the capability to be apolitical because we have accountability and elections,” he says. “They have the capacity to serve with honor because we have changes in administration at the White House, different people doing investigations and oversight in Congress. They need to prioritize those folks who administer the democracy that gives them that warm blanket that they serve under.”
He continues: “If there is a political figure to be called out on this, it’s [Garland], not President Biden. Joe Biden does not control the Justice Department, nor should he. There has to be independence of the department. Even though doing the wrong thing can sometimes be a lot more satisfying, or maybe even achieve what should be done on this issue, the president of the United States should not intervene or pressure the department that way, especially on an issue as critical as this. You can’t allow yourself to, even in the service of something justified, act like the bad guys do, because the [authoritarian types] want the Justice Department to act as an arm of the guy sitting in the Oval Office.”
Two of the cases prosecuted by the Election Threats Task Force have touched Fontes’ own office. Last summer, the department secured guilty pleas against an Ohio man charged with leaving threatening voicemails and another case involving bomb threats directed at the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.
A year before, the DOJ brought charges against a Texas man who threatened Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, including messages pledging “a mass shooting of poll workers and election officials.” Richer subsequently thanked the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas for their assistance and “for responsibly charging this crime.”
While those incidents were alarming, Fontes says he’s particularly concerned with the safety of frontline election workers who are much less senior, like “clerks and election workers in other small or less populated counties who’ve suffered similar sorts of threats.”
Even when federal prosecutors secure a victory after charging people making these violent threats, Arizona’s secretary of state argues that barely anyone hears about it — and that’s a major problem.
“In almost every other area criminality is deterred through public campaigns,” he adds. The Justice Department’s election task force issues typically press releases after convictions, but Fontes says press releases aren’t enough to deter people or adequate given the extent of the problem.
In Fontes view, the constant barrage of threats has already “had a meaningful impact on 2024” — one that’s apparent in the state’s election workforce. Arizona now has the second highest turnover rate among election officials in the country, according to a study by Issue One, a nonprofit that studies American democracy.
The abuse has now settled into an almost predictable rhythm. With every routine political event or announcement comes a fresh crop of threats. When the secretary of state’s office announced the order of candidates on the state’s primary ballot, in came a spike of threats. Soon, Fontes office will be in hearings to discuss their budget, and the secretary says he’s bracing for more invective.
“You’re risking your life every single day because of a lie,” he says. “Not because it’s a physically dangerous environment, like a shipping yard or a factory or construction site. Because there’s somebody out there lying. And someone who’s listening to that lie, believing it, is so upset about it that they literally want to go kill you. It’s a very very strange place to be as a civilized society.”
Fontes doesn’t just lay the blame at the feet of the Justice Department alone. He says he believes some state-level prosecutors are “potentially being a little bit gun-shy” in taking on threats, as well. And he blames the media for lavishing “gobs and gobs of free press” on MAGAfied candidates like failed Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake and his own 2022 opponent, Finchem, when they spewed bizarre conspiracy theories, turning Lake into a “celebrity” and Finchem into a kind of “folk hero.”
Fontes, however, is keen to draw a contrast with the candidates and supporters who have refused to accept their losses. As the state’s top elections administration official, he says his loyalty is to the law, rather than a candidate.
“If Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee, and he wins the primary, and he wins the general election in our elections — our regular clean and fair election here in Arizona — the law dictates, and I will follow my duty. I will certify his victory. I may cast my singular vote, but I’m still going to do my job.”