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Inside Election Administration with Arizona’s Secretary of State

Featuring Adrian Fontes

How are states like Arizona preparing for the 2024 presidential election in the United States? How do they ensure the public our votes are safe? And why can’t we track our mail-in votes like Uber Eats? Today, we talk with Adrian Fontes, the Secretary of State of Arizona, to discuss the functioning and importance of the electoral process in the United States, with a particular focus on the state of Arizona.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined by my co-host for this podcast, Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And this is our weekly deep dive into things going on in the world that are not quite as grim and not quite as dystopian and not quite as despairing as the general climate would suggest.

We do not always pay enough attention to the things that are going on that are going well or to the people who are making sure that the problems that we all acknowledge—whether those are cultural, political, or economic—are being attended to, that there are people attempting to solve problems that, yes, people have created and therefore need solutions of our own creation. And there are lots of people who are focused on those solutions and we think it would be a good thing to pay more attention to those solutions. And on that note, as we enter a fraught election year, fraught is gonna be an overused word, but it’s probably an absolutely apt one for 2024. How our elections go this year is going to be one of the great issues, questions, conundrums and how we ensure that people have confidence that whatever happens at the ballot box towards the end of the year is a reflection of how people voted, is going to be an open question until then.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today, we’re gonna talk to Adrian Fontes. He is the 21st secretary of state of Arizona, and he’s been that since 2022. He’s the chief elections officer for Arizona, so he is very focused right now on making sure that there’s going to be a safe, secure, and accurate election. Before he was secretary of state, he was the county recorder for Maricopa County, now the second-largest voting county in all of the United States. And as county recorder, he was the first Democrat elected there in over 50 years. So we’re gonna talk to him today about what exactly he and his office are doing looking forward to the 2024 presidential election as we all are.

ZK: Adrian Fontes, it is such a pleasure to have you on today. We mix a match a bit on this show between culture, politics, international, national. We have not, over the past bunch of episodes, focused so much on what’s going on in the United States, partly because we attended a bit to what’s going on in the Middle East, which seemed a legit focus for the fall and for the future. And we’ve talked about what’s going on culturally on campuses, but we have not focused as much on what’s going on politically and electorally, I think partly out of a sense of reasonable dread at the degree to which everyone’s gonna be overfocusing, obsessively focusing, depressively focusing on elections in 2024 in the United States and we were pacing ourselves and trying to do things like celebrate Christmas and usher in the new year with a degree of hope rather than a modicum of despair, or maybe it was a modicum of hope rather than a degree of despair, but either way.

We are now turning to the delightfully fraught subject of politics. And you are the secretary of state of Arizona. I think most of us, other than maybe a brief moment in 2000 in the hanging chad election, didn’t really think about secretaries of states as a meaningful public office. I’m not saying that in any way to lessen the magnitude of the office you now hold. I just mean from a public perspective, I think most people didn’t even think about secretary of states unless you were in the weeds of public service and state politics. And now, after 2020, you’re a rock star. It’s like everybody wants to be secretary of state and everybody wants to hate the secretary of state for not somehow magically transforming an electoral result into something they want. So why the hell did you run for office and do this? It’s like walking around with a new and sudden bullseye to be in this particular role.

Adrian Fontes (AF): Well, first, thanks for having me, and second, it’s not a new set of crosshairs that we find ourselves in. I was really mad back in the spring of 2016 for that presidential preference election in Arizona where here in Maricopa County, the greater Phoenix area, we found ourselves suffering through 4, 5, 6 hour long lines. And so I decided to run for county recorder, which in Maricopa County, Arizona at the time, we were the third largest voting jurisdiction in the United States of America. And election administration was, or I should say the lack of it, was what failed so many voters. Some estimates say that up to 130,000 people were denied the right to vote just because they planned it poorly. And so that motivated me to run for that office.

I became the Maricopa County recorder. We put 500,000 more voters onto the voter rolls because we actually opened up access for traditionally underserved communities and people of color and so forth. And I lost my reelection bid in 2020, which was really interesting because both of the ballots that I was on and shared that space with a certain someone. I won when he won and I lost when he lost. But I didn’t cry about it when it was over for me. I decided to move on. Then I was the chief deputy recorder down in Pima County, the greater Tucson, Arizona area, for a time. And then I decided to run for secretary of state because we needed someone who had actually run elections back in this spot.

In fact, Arizona is a bottom-up state. The counties actually run the elections. The secretary is really a regulator. We kind of make sure everybody’s doing their jobs well. But I wanted to run because I felt a real heavy sense of duty. None of the people that seemed to be emerging back in early 2021 had any experience doing this. And at the counties in Arizona, we needed somebody who actually knew what the hell was going on. And so I decided to run and we put forth the effort and we beat one of the biggest election denialists that has ever existed. And so I’m back in the fray. It’s been a year now, and we’ve built an amazing team, and I’m really excited to be continuing to push forward and helping Arizona have a successful 2024.

EV: So obviously, we’re heading—which Zachary more than hinted at—into a very nerve-wracking election. And given your statement just now that Arizona needed someone that had election experience, what did you learn as county recorder that you’re bringing into secretary of state now, particularly looking at 2024?

AF: Well, without getting too much into the weeds, what I learned was how Arizona’s elections work from an actual hands-on perspective. We’ve had a lot of secretaries of state here in Arizona, and across the country really, who come right out of the legislature. They come out of some other elected office. There are really more policy wonks and politicians than actual administrators. Actually, the folks who ran the warehouses, who did the HR work, who did the training, who found the facilities and made sure that the technology was working well, that the facilities and the technology were secure. There’s a whole lot of work that goes into election administration that a lot of people don’t even think about, particularly in a jurisdiction as big as Maricopa County, which by the way, is now the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the country.

And so it’s fine to have policy experience, that’s all well and good, but it’s a very different thing to be able to bring to those counties, for example, in Arizona, that need the kind of leadership at this level that understands what they’re going through, that they’re willing to ask the questions of other parts of state leadership that need to be asked from the county’s perspective. At the end of the day, they’re the ones that do the work. So that’s really the unique perspective I think is so valuable and really having a technical knowledge of how things work. And every state is different, of course, but this is what Arizona needed, and I’m very grateful that the voters put me here, and I think it’s reflecting in the way that the counties and this office are now working together.

ZK: So you’re clearly gonna be—I mean, if current trends hold, and there’s no reason to believe that they will not, the 2024 presidential election will likely come down to maybe five states, right? Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona—maybe Nevada, maybe not Pennsylvania, but almost certainly Arizona. No matter what version of reality—whether it’s Trump and Biden, whether it’s Republican A and Democrat B—Arizona is currently one of the most, I suppose if you’re being neutral about it, fascinating, and if you’re being partisan about it, troubling [laughs] mix of American democracy right now. It’s basically everything in a microcosm. And Maricopa is probably even more everything in a smaller microcosm.

I mean, is there a way for you in the role that you’re in to create a somewhat different climate where people at least don’t go to the recourse of, if my person loses, therefore the election was unfair or not correctly run, or some version of that argument?

AF: Yeah, that’s already part of the culture of the extreme, right? And that sore loser-ism, that is sort of embedded into a small portion of the body politic, and it’s just something we’re gonna have to deal with. So it would be impossible for me to be able to, with a straight face, say that we’re gonna be able to eliminate all of that. Sore losers are gonna be sore losers no matter what. But I think one of the things that we can do, and we are doing pretty well, is starting with the basics. Starting with working across the aisle with the legislature. Of the six pieces of legislation that our office is pushing, five of them are being sponsored by Republicans. One of them is a Republican who’s an election denier and has sued me several times, and he’s sponsoring one of my bills. And that’s because we’re being pragmatic, we’re being reasonable, we’re being realistic. I’m not—

ZK: What is that bill actually?

AF: It’s a bill to allow this office to certify elections officials in even-numbered years. It used to be that we could only run our biannual certification in even or odd-numbered years, and that was to really avoid getting involved during the election year. But now, because we’ve had such a loss of election officials, we’re gonna have to do it in the even-numbered years.

ZK: Have you had a loss of election officials ’cause so many people are saying, this is too intense and I don’t wanna be in this?

AF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Arizona is one of the epicenters of this. 92% of our voters are gonna be voting with elections officials that were not there in 2020. During the last presidential cycle, 11, 12 of our 15 counties lost one of the top two senior election officials. The issue, one report that came out last fall put out information about how bad it was here. And so we’ve lost a significant number of our elections officials, and that experience really, really matters. And so we’re doing all of the training that we can. And in this particular circumstance, getting back to the original question, we have one of our fiercest election deniers allowing us, because it’s forbidden in statute right now, opening that up so that we can actually certify election officials during the even-numbered major election years, which was originally not permitted.

So this gets back to the notion that we are slowly but surely chipping away at the ranker. We’re doing it because we’re being reasonable, we’re being very data-driven in our approach to legislation. That puts us in a space where we are familiar with folks on the other side, even the election denialists, and we’re working with them. And that just makes it harder for them to continue down that path of conspiracy theories and lies, especially when they’re working directly with us on so much.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

Audio Clip: We are very focused on the threat of elections workers and voters being intimidated. Unfortunately, there are people out there who, again, think it is in their best interest to intimidate folks. But if people are going to go, as our election workers leave after 16, 18-hour days defending democracy, counting the votes and have their picture taken and the picture of their license plate taken, that is unacceptable and it has to stop.

That was Bill Gates, the former chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors outlining threats to midterm election workers last fall in Arizona.

EV: So I guess those election officials or the new election officials are some brave souls. For instance, you had people showing up in tactical gear at the ballot drop boxes in the 2022 midterms. Do you have a sense that that fervor has died down at all outside of legislator or just ordinary people, ordinary Arizonians, or are you expecting something of that same order of magnitude for the upcoming election?

ZK: Is it Arizonians by the way?

EV: Is it Arizonian?

AF: It’s Arizonans.

EV: Arizonans. Forget the I.

AF: Yeah, you bought too many vowels on that one.

EV: [laughs] I’m Greek. We love vowels.

AF: Yeah, I mean, vowels are great when you have just the right number. But Arizonans writ large are I think getting sick of the nonsense, I guess is one way of saying it. But there are still some of those true believers, some of those faithful, and they still believe very strongly in their Second Amendment right to carry firearms wherever they will. And sometimes they decide to do it near ballot drop boxes, which is what we saw in 2022, just as close as the last election cycle. And that really is something that I think will to some degree potentially be dying down. But look, we gotta be prepared for it.

But it’s not just security at our facilities, which we saw in November of 2020. It’s not just threats against elections officials, which we’ve seen manifest not just on social media, emails, phone calls, in board meetings, et cetera, but one of our elected officials had her dogs poisoned as a means of intimidation here. So what we’re doing is we’re approaching this in the multifaceted way that the situation requires. We’re working closely with state, federal, and local law enforcement agencies and some of our really important partners that are watching the threats, particularly via the internet from international spaces like Russia and China and North Korea and Iran, who all want to kind of mess around with our information infrastructure. But we’re approaching it from that multifaceted angle. And we’ve also got the new emerging threat of generative artificial intelligence and its capacity to upset the apple cart in a much more quick way. So that really is an amplifier for misinformation and disinformation. It’s not a new threat. It’s a new way for these other older threats to manifest. So we’ve got our hands full.

And one of the hard parts for us is that in 2017, elections administration was designated critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. We still don’t have sustained federal funding for it. So it’s as if the dam up river is not funded, the villages just gotta scrape it together so that it doesn’t end up bursting. The school buses are risking going over the bridge every time because there’s no funding for that critical infrastructure. It’s as if the airplanes gotta figure out a way, or the airlines gotta figure out a way to make sure that they’re coordinating their air traffic well on their own because there’s no money for it. And elections administration does not have sustained funding from the federal government. And in many states, it falls short as well. So we’re doing the best with what we have. And I’ve been ringing this bell for a while to try to get folks to understand that if they wanna protect and preserve our democracy, we gotta pay for it.

ZK: Yeah. I mean, this is obviously a greater issue than just election funding. I mean, it’s true with the electricity grid. It’s true with a lot of sort of things that Congress says, this is absolutely vital, and then there’s no funds to back up its vitality.

AF: Well, the interesting thing, particularly in this one, sorry to interrupt you, is that this is the only sector of critical infrastructure that has no sustained federal funding. The only one is election administration, so.

ZK: You know, we call this show What Could Go Right? ’cause we’re trying to look at things from an eye toward what are our problems that we’re solving and not just what are our problems that we’re wallowing in. And it’s certainly true, and you alluded to this earlier, that the election that preceded your being in office, the 2022 midterm elections, in many ways did not engender the kind of conspiracy blowback. It was closely contested in many states, and many people, for the most part, seemed to have accepted this as a free and fair election and accepted the verdict of the voters both when it was in their favor and not. Obviously, there were the outliers that you’re talking about and there was the extremes, but I think a lot of us were pleasantly surprised that 2022 was what we would consider a normal-ish election.

AF: I mean, outside of Arizona, that may be true, but Kari Lake still thinks she’s the governor and Abe Hamadeh still thinks he’s the attorney general. And so in Arizona, the election denialism is still large, it is still very present, and it is still quite annoying from this perspective. But I do agree with you that nationally, the fever, I won’t say has broken, but it seems to have peaked, and it’s very good to see. Hopefully that’ll seep into Arizona here real quickly.

ZK: And it’s an interesting question, and not a partisan one, as much as we don’t really have a sense—I mean, unless you’re in Arizona, you don’t have a sense of Kari Lake who had been the gubernatorial candidate who lost in 2022, she challenged the results and was forcefully pushed back by the courts, by Arizona courts, in her claims, not just politely, right? I mean, it was sort of shut down like there’s no merit.

AF: Yeah. She was put down by the voter and the courts just validated what the voters did. I do see that movement here in Arizona from the voters. Look, my opponent was soundly rejected. He was an Oath Keeper. He was an anti-Semite. He was a absolute election denier. He was present at January 6th at the insurrection against the US Constitution in Washington, D.C. And he was resoundingly rejected by the voters. And so, particularly where this office was concerned, the keeper of democracy, at least in Arizona. And so I think, again, that there’s some positivity on the horizon, but it’s up to the voters. It always has been, and thank goodness it continues to look that way.

EV: So, coming back to the AI comment or mention, you know, AI is definitely on everyone’s minds these days, and we have deepfakes to contend with, we have misinformation, disinformation, all kinds of stuff going on. How are you prepping for that? What does a deepfake prep look like? Because my understanding is that you’ve been training with deepfakes of yourself and other people that are well-known in the landscape in Arizona.

AF: Well, we have seen deepfakes before—voice deepfakes, audio video deepfakes—but you ain’t seen nothing yet. The technology is advancing very, very quickly. ChatGPT 4.0 is going to make way to ChatGPT 5 before we get to next fall. And it’s gonna be a doozy. It is very, very capable of producing some really, really amazing things. That and many other AI tools are also capable of producing some really scary stuff. So what we are doing is really sort of coming back to basics. At the end of the day, that’s what this is really all about. We have always voted on paper ballots here in Arizona. We’re gonna continue to do that. That piece of paper is the physical manifestation of the voter’s intent to vote. We can preserve and protect that system no matter what AI does, and we can preserve and protect those ballots no matter what AI does.

We can make sure that we’re working closely with our law enforcement and our media partners. We had that tabletop exercise that you mentioned with our election administrators. We’re gonna host another one after our presidential preference election in March for law enforcement. And then later, we’re gonna host one for the media so that we can make sure that everyone is on the same sheet of music. And when we do see information pop up, we’ll know exactly where to go to verify that these things are true, to get the right trusted information out to individuals in those communication networks so that we can stave off a lot of what AI is doing.

And there’s no playbook for this. This is gonna be the first election cycle that we really have to deal with this, and it’s gonna be a heck of a challenge. But we are working directly with our Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, we’re working directly with the Department of Homeland Security at the state and the federal level, the Critical Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, is a great partner for us, and we’re working with just about everybody else, DOJ law side and the FBI, we’re working with Arizona Department of Public Safety, all of our local law enforcement agencies and sheriffs and stuff.

The notion here is, as long as we get everyone, A, speaking the same vocabulary, B, running through the checks and balances, again, just the basics, then we will, C, be able to stave off these threats. And at the end of the day, with that philosophical approach, I think we’re gonna be in good shape. Will we still see these little bugaboos pop up here and there? You bet. We’re expecting it, and that’s why we’re preparing for it. We don’t know exactly what it’s gonna look like or sound like, but we are doing our level best to make sure that every election administrator in the state is prepared and that they are well supported, and that we can deliver a good election in 2024 for the state of Arizona.

EV: What did the tabletop exercises look like? If you could just put us into the room for one of those really quickly.

AF: Yeah, that’s a great question. So the military and law enforcement run tabletop exercises before big events. So for example, what we did was we did a Friday afternoon and a Saturday morning. On Friday afternoon, we ran through, in about an hour and a half, two hours worth of time, several months worth of simulation between X date and the day before election day. And the calendar was ticking in a series of minutes, like I think every day was like four minutes long or something like that. And then every tick of the clock, we would inject something that happened. So some fire went and took out one of the bridges in Arizona. That transportation route suddenly goes away for ballots by mail. How are we gonna make sure that we can get things back and forth? Something happens on the power grid over here, something happens, there’s a fire in a printer warehouse over there.

So we do these little injects, it’s almost like Dungeons & Dragons for election administrators. And we get to play the dungeon master and we throw the team into certain scenarios. We bring out this monster and that monster and we see how they deal with it. But what we’re doing is we’re using all of our players—so everything from county managers, emergency services people, law enforcement, or election administrators across the board—to make sure that their lines of communication are really solid. And then we’re throwing these scenarios at them so that they can train into, or at least be familiar with, how to deal with something that might pop up unexpectedly.

Look, it’s a lot of fun even though you’re dealing with really harrowing real-world type of scenarios. The gamification of it is great training for when folks actually have to look at these scenarios, actually have to deal with these issues. I’m phenomenally proud of the work that we did. Like I said, we had over 200 participants at the TTX from all over the whole state of Arizona. And it was a really phenomenally well-received exercise, particularly the AI portion, which I thought was a lot of fun.

ZK: Now, Arizona has had its own challenges in terms of how long it takes to tabulate the results, which has led to mainstream media, certainly on election nights, trying to figure out from the polls, from the exit polls, which way Arizona’s gonna go. It’s led to a lot of contentious moments of the results being called too early or, in the minds of many people, not early enough. So what do you do about that, frankly, problem of the lag time between the end of the day of a Tuesday election day and how long it takes to actually officially release results?

AF: Yeah, we’ve had folks complaining about how long it takes us to tabulate as soon as the margins got tighter politically. I mean, back in the days when John McCain was winning his Senate race by 25 points, nobody cared how long it took to tabulate the ballots because the math was just so impossible to overcome for the opponents. But once you get into competitive spaces, like the 2016 presidential race, which wasn’t a huge margin of victory, the 2018 US Senate race, and you get some more competitive races, or 2016 US Senate race as well, it’s always taken Arizona several days and sometimes a week or so to actually come up with official results. It has always taken that long for a whole host of reasons that I won’t get into right now, and it will probably always take that long.

But there’s three things that you can have in elections. You can only pick two of the three. You can have it cheap, you can have it fast, or you can have it accurate. Pick two of those three, and that’s what you get. In Arizona, we get it pretty inexpensive and super accurate. It always has been, but it’s not gonna be quick. And that’s okay. From an election administrator standpoint, we want to get it right, we want to get it right the first time, and we do a pretty doggone good job if you consider the huge number of votes, particularly in Maricopa, which is about 62% of Arizona’s ballots get tallied right here in this one county. So, is it a little inconvenient? For the news folks, it might be. They don’t get to make their call with the confidence that they usually wanna make their call quickly, but at the end of the day, we get good solid results, and that’s what really matters.

So do people get upset about it? A little bit. It’s a bit of an inconvenience. Do their concerns bear weight? For a lot of them, I’ll say, no, they don’t. Because one of the issues we have, for example, from the Kari Lake crowd, she encouraged people to wait and bring their early ballot in on election day. Well, these are all envelopes that have to be signature verified before we even open them, before we can then tabulate them. And we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of ballots that show up that all have to get processed. And so you can’t tell everybody to vote late and then expect quick results at the same time and complain if you don’t get the results as fast as you want. It’s unrealistic and it’s silly.

So along with all of the rest of the stuff that we know is nonsense, we take those criticisms with the grain of salt that they deserve, and then we just move on and continue to run great elections in Arizona, as we have done for several generations, frankly.

EV: So I heard you emphasize the paper ballots before, which should be comforting to people being people are nervous about the digitization of that for understandable reasons. But you are introducing some new developments, right? Like I read about tracking votes by text. What other things are coming up for Arizona?

AF: Oh, yeah, that’s actually the most wildly popular bipartisan piece of anything that anybody’s done in Arizona for elections in a long time. When I was the Maricopa County Recorder, I introduced a policy and a practice there where voters could sign up to track their ballot via text or email. Now, you used to be able to—you’d go to the website and you would log on, and you could log into your voter record and find out if your ballot was being prepared for the upcoming election, you’d find out if it had been mailed to you, you could find out if it had been received, and then you could find out if it had been signature verified and then set for tabulation. These individual little pieces of data, we were already collecting and we were already letting the voters have access to it. This system actually pushes that information via text and/or email to the voters.

So about 60 days before an election happens in Arizona, the voters that are signed up for that service will get a text message that pops up and says, “Your ballot’s being prepared for the upcoming election.” 27 days before the election, when we put it in the mail, you get a text message that says, “Your ballot’s been mailed to you,” which is a really great accountability tool. And then once it gets received back, that barcode gets scanned and you get a text message automatically that says, “Your ballot’s been received.” Then when your ballot envelope has been signature verified, you get another text message that says, “Your ballot’s been signature verified.” So what we introduced was giving the voters the information that they would just naturally be curious about. Many of them went to look it up and we just made it easy. Just sign up for this service and we’re gonna push the information about your ballot and the status of the ballot.

Now, it doesn’t tell anybody who you voted for because once that ballot in the envelope gets separated, the ballot has been set for tabulation. It is anonymized by virtue of the fact that it’s separate from the envelope, which is the only piece of that puzzle that has any identifying information. So the selections on the ballot are anonymous. You don’t get that information. But pushing this data to voters is wildly popular with all partisans, with all voters. And I’m really proud to have introduced that here in Maricopa County. I took that system down to Pima County when I was the chief deputy recorder, and I’m happy to tell your audience that it looks like we very well may be—I’m knocking on wood real quick here. We may be able to introduce it as a test for our March presidential preference election here in Arizona. And God willing and the creek don’t rise, it’ll be available for all the other counties in Arizona by the time we get to the November election. It’s a really wonderful piece of technology and the voters absolutely love it.

EV: Well, if you can track your Uber Eats order, I guess you should be able to track your vote, right? [laughs]

AF: Simple as that. Simple as that.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

Audio Clip: Yeah. Despite the disinformation—there’s been a lot of disinformation over the last several years about how our elections are run—our elections are more secure, transparent, and verified than we’ve ever had in American history. And that’s objectively true. If you just look at all of the statistics, we have more paper ballots than ever before. 95% of all ballots cast in 2020 were paper, including all of the ballots in all of the battleground states. Paper is important ’cause you can go back and audit paper and recount paper and make sure that the counts the machines might have done were accurate. And that was done in 2020 to a higher degree than we’ve ever seen before. 43 states conducted audits of those paper ballots, including all of the battleground states again.

ZK: Emma alluded to the fact that many people still believe that a paper ballot is a more secure—they trust it more. It doesn’t raise the suspicions of hacking into a program. That being said, certainly both generationally and behaviorally, more and more of us are living appreciable portions of our lives digitally. We do most of our financial transactions digitally, and we do those financial transactions because we have come to trust the security of our data when it pertains to money. So the question is, A, why is that not then extended to ballots? And why shouldn’t we be looking toward an increasingly digital future, maybe even in 10, 20 years, a future where you could vote literally with your device and not vote in person?

AF: Well, first of all, I think that’s a phenomenally good question. And I’m a big proponent of technology. I think we can make things much more efficient, much more user-friendly, and really meet voters where they are digitally. But the relationship between your ballot and the rest of society and the relationship between you and your money are two wholly and completely different things. You can do whatever you want with your money. It doesn’t really have that big of an impact on anybody else. It’s your money. You actually own it. Your vote on the other hand is a piece of a bigger puzzle. You are a member of a group—either a precinct, a city, a town, a county, a state, a nation—and your vote counts with those votes of other people. It is a cumulative decision-making process that we are engaged in here.

And so it doesn’t just belong to you. You get to make the selection for yourself, of course. And in states like Arizona that guarantee secrecy, we wanna maintain that, of course, and we want to have the voters that have as much autonomy as possible. But preserving them on paper is the single best physical manifestation of that record of your choice for the whole that exists. When you make a choice regarding whether or not you’re gonna subscribe to this podcast or whatever other thing, or whether you’re gonna pay more on your mortgage this month or next month, that’s between you and the bank. That’s an individual relationship, a one-to-one. Your vote matters for everyone, and everyone else’s vote matters for you. And so philosophically, it’s a very different thing.

Now, will we get to a place where we can have the kinds of systems that engender that same sort of trust in the future? Perhaps. And I’ve looked at those things just to see what they look like. But for the time being, you can’t ignore the very stark apple to orange comparison between you and your bank account and your vote and my leadership. It’s a very different relationship.

ZK: Let me push back on that for a moment. And I appreciate what you’re saying, that there’s a communal aspect of a vote that’s also a public performance. I don’t mean performance in a pejorative sense. I mean a performance as you are performing a civic responsibility and part of the performance of that is to physically be present in conjunction with other people in your community doing the same thing at very select moments that happen, frankly, in the greater warp and woof of things rarely, every couple of years. And that’s communally important and symbolically important that there be a physicality to that, that we are there together doing this as well as, as you just said, the ability to demonstrate results tangibly, physically. At the same time, our tax dollars are a collective action that is not just an individual relationship between me and my bank account. It’s a responsibility that I both am obligated to do and probably would defend that obligation with the government. We do that digitally, right? We no longer just mail our—

AF: No, that is different. It’s your tax dollars. You make less money, you pay less taxes. You make more money, you pay more taxes. And then we elect people to spend that money. That’s the communal part of it. But your relationship with the IRS or the Department of Revenue in your state is your relationship. That can be individualized, that can be very specifically noted. You can pay penalties individually for not paying your taxes. Those don’t apply to the rest of the community. Those don’t apply to everybody else.

So the act and the impact are very, very different with all of those other things. It is about the individual and the institution, whether it’s a banking institution, whether it’s the tax man or anything like that. The act of voting is a collective act by its very nature. The reason that we have elections is because we have differing points of view and we have to come to a common decision. It is one of the only spaces that we have where everyone’s voice coming together actually produces a singular result that then has an impact on everybody else. I mean, unless it’s like the church choir, right? Then your voice and everybody else’s work together too. But from a civic responsibility perspective, it’s like you owe this act to your community. You’re making a decision for everyone, not just for you. It’s different with taxes, it’s different with mortgages, it’s different with all of the rest of the things. You’re making the decision for yourself and only you have to suffer the consequences of a bad decision.

EV: So, Adrian, we’ve been talking about elections and the election this whole time, but I am curious to ask you, is there something that you wish people would ask you about other than this topic? [laughs]

AF: [laughs] Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that we do in this office. We’re in charge of the state library and archives. We’ve got a lot of business services that we take care of to make sure that prosperity remains possible, that opportunities remain pretty accessible for all people here in Arizona, especially economic opportunities. I mean, that’s one of the main things. We look back at a lot of folks and we know that the legacy of this country is really interesting. It’s curious. The business of America has always been business. And one of the key tenets of the civil rights movement was economic capacity. It was access to economic opportunity. Not just the ballot, not just rights here and there, but the whole package was there.

So this office really does engage in a whole host of really fulfilling the American dream spaces. The freedom of information that you get in your libraries and the capacity to really process that and preserve it for future generations like we do in the archives. That’s one of the things that I think is great about being the secretary of state in Arizona. Not to mention I’m also the lieutenant governor. So every once in a while when our governor’s out of state, I get to make a cool proclamation about this, that, or the other as the acting governor, which is a lot of fun. So yeah, there’s a lot of things that this office really works on, but this is the gatekeeper to democracy space. A lot of our critical institutions that help all of you know this fabric of our society run right through this office.

And I’ve always described—getting back to the thing that we talk about too much, I guess, getting back to elections, elections are—and I like to say this. Elections are the golden thread that bind together the fabric of all of the rest of our society. Again, whether it’s business, the arts and sciences, technology, law, medicine, all of those things, those fabrics are bound together by this communal act of elections, that golden thread. And if you pull that golden thread out, the entire fabric disintegrates. And that’s really, really true, especially when we operate in the system that we do. American democracy is bound together by faith—the faith that we have in one another. And the authoritarians and sort of the fascists out there want to divide us away from one another and to destroy that civic faith that we as Americans have specifically in that golden thread that binds us together as a society.

And you don’t always get the result you want. That’s one of the beauties of this thing. Everyone sometimes wins. You don’t always get to win, but you always get to participate. You always get to move forward. And we do get to progress as a society because of that civic faith. And so that’s one of the great things about this office is that it really all does tie together philosophically, and it’s exciting. And I’m having, obviously [laughs], as you could tell, I’m having a great time doing this job. I really love it.

ZK: I have to say as we wrap up, on the one hand, there’s the depressing reality that you talked about earlier of the preponderance of election officials resigned or didn’t run again because of just the dispiriting stress and trauma and drama of the past few elections. It was too much. The flip side, of course, is there’s a whole new set of people who are willing to step in and be public servants, and you included. The optic is very different if you look at it from, oh my God, the intense partisanship and hatred and denialism is leading people to step aside because it’s a much more fraught role than saying, look at all the new people who are saying that they are passionate about exactly what you just articulated, that elections are the closest thing we have to a covenant with each other, and there are plenty of people who are stepping up and saying, I’m gonna be a servant to make sure that this aspect of our society and our democracy continues to function, which is a much more hopeful statement than the one of everybody went, oh my God, I can’t do this.

AF: Yeah. And that’s really what keeps me going. It’s these folks that are coming in and they’re coming in bright-eyed. They know exactly what it is that other folks have gone through. They see it in a lot of the training. You never used to have to do live shooter drills in elections offices.

ZK: [laughs]

AF: We do now.

ZK: I’m not laughing, laughing. I’m just like, oh my God, yes.

AF: Yeah, it’s a morbid laugh, but it’s appropriate. We never had to do a lot of the stuff that we have to do now. And things change. And sometimes they change for the better, and sometimes they change for the worse. But like you said, and I think it’s critically important for folks to understand, I am positive, I am uplifted, and I have a great deal of hope because of the people who are coming in, because these folks want to be a part of American democracy in spite of the possible downsides, in spite of the possible danger and the stress and the threats and all that stuff. They still wanna see this move forward. And that means that what we do is valuable. It’s incredibly valuable. And you really want the folks that get it to be doing it. And those are the folks that we’re bringing in. And I’m pretty darn proud of it.

ZK: Well, we, we wish you—I mean, luck is probably not the right word. Godspeed. Make sure you sleep well. Have a sleep now ’cause you probably won’t sleep for the second half of the year. And thank you for doing the role that you’re doing and for stepping into the fray and the ring and all those cliches. But it’s really good to hear. And I hope many people who are listening will feel the same, that it is good to hear. And I don’t think we hear it enough. What people pay attention to in politics tends to be the horse race and the drama. And then we sort of stop paying attention to what people are actually doing. And I’ve really appreciated the conversation about that. And, again, the more you can speak about it and the more I think you can evangelize for, hey, we are a set of people performing really vital tasks. We do so with eyes wide open, enthusiasm, awareness of the challenges of that, and here we are. And I think the more people hear that, that in and of itself is, if not an antidote to, then certainly something that leavens what otherwise appears to be a kind of depressing picture.

AF: Yep. Couldn’t have said it better myself. And I certainly am excited to be doing it, particularly, like I said, with the folks who are coming in now and the folks that are still around, of course. They get it. They’ve gotten it for a long time. But it’s exciting, it’s fun. 2024 is gonna have its challenges, but at the end of the day, if you’re not doing something challenging, then you gotta consider getting outta your comfort zone. And this certainly can be an uncomfortable spot once in a while. But we’ll get through it and we’ll be just fine.

EV: We’ll check in on you after the election, Adrian. But for now, thanks so much for coming on.

AF: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

ZK: Well, at the risk of repeating myself, I did find that conversation quite uplifting, first of all to just have someone who’s passionate about public service, who has really thought deeply about both the wonky stuff and the more like who are we as a democratic society questions. And I think, we talked about this once, that we pay only attention to massive divisions and name-calling in Congress, for instance, even though underneath the surface, there are actually laws being passed and bills being written by Democrats and Republicans cooperating with each other that ends up not being news because it’s not nearly as interesting to talk about a bill that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. And Adrian alluded to bills that are being sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats to improve elections in Arizona as a indication of there are a lot of public servants who are actually trying to serve the public and not just themselves, and not just their own ambition, and not just newshounds and trying to get attention for the sake of getting attention.

And it’s important to remember that, that there are in fact a lot of people who are animated by a spirit of public service, not just by greed and ambition and wanting to be in the limelight. And much of what a secretary of state does, at least until 2020, was the opposite of the limelight. It was simply doing absolutely necessary and vital work away from the spotlight. The fact that it’s become in the spotlight is probably not a great thing, but it’s still often people who are—you had this with Brad Raffensberger in Georgia, of course, who really are just driven by making sure that elections are fair and free and open and well run.

EV: Yeah, I mean, the silver lining of a bunch of people suddenly caring about what the secretary of state in Arizona is doing is that we all have a better understanding of how elections are actually run, and as Adrian pointed out, all the logistical details that are involved in that and all of the preparation. I will say my one pushback to the bipartisan legislation getting pushed over the finish line is that his example that he gave, he did also mention that that guy was filing lawsuits against him. So it seems to be a mix of public service sentiment and personal ambition or playing to a crowd, let’s say.

But something else I wanted to point out too is that with Adrian, it reminded me, perhaps surprisingly, of our conversation about climate change with Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young, because they had the same point that if you read what the media has to say about these big crises, you get very discouraged, very dejected. But if you talk to people that are actually in the trenches and doing the work, they have completely opposite attitude. And I think Adrian was a perfect example of that when it comes to elections in the States.

ZK: By the way, we did ask the secretary of state beforehand what title to use, and he was not particularly interested in title. So for those who are listening, we’re calling him by his first name ’cause that’s what he prefers. It’s not that we’re in any way trying to be casual about the fact that he holds high office in a significant state. All states are significant. He holds a high office in one of the 50 states of the United States.

It will be fascinating to see what happens this year, of course, and whether or not what most of us thought about 2022. I mean, taking the caveat of there were still election deniers in Arizona and elsewhere, and by election deniers, it is people who simply refused to acknowledge tabulated results that both courts and what are supposed to be nonpartisan election officials have certified, whether it’s Republican or Democrat. It seemed in 2022 that that election was largely accepted by enough of the preponderance of the electorate and officials that it was a normal election. And separate from what the result might be in 2024, we should certainly hope for and demand that we all accept a legitimate result. That doesn’t mean we like the result. It means we see the process as having resulted in a fair election. And 2022 was I think an example of no matter what happens in the November 2024 elections, it would certainly be better for our democracy if all of us have faith that the result is an accurate reflection of how people actually voted.

EV: I mean, I’m sure a lot of people out there wish that. I think that Adrian seemed to be pointing out that the fever around that seems to be dissipating somewhat. And I think the longer that we go on with elections going relatively smoothly, the more and more that will kind of fade into remember that one time that that terrible thing happened when we were terribly ill? But we shall see. We shall see. We didn’t get to ask him. I think it was just obvious by the way that he was answering how he feels personally. ‘Cause we used a lot of words like dread and nerve wracking and despair and things like that. And he was just the opposite of that. So, I don’t know, maybe he’s hiding nerves deep inside of him. Maybe he is and that’s his role as someone in public office to hide that. But I’d be curious for kind of like an X-ray into his soul on that. [laughs] How he really feels.

ZK: He seemed pretty straightforward about his confidence and his ability to create a fair election or make sure that an election is run fairly.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: So we will be back next week with another episode. We want to thank you all for listening and tuning in again. Comments, questions, critiques are all welcome. Go to and send us whatever you wanna send us. Sign up for our newsletter. It comes out every week, it’s free, shows up in your mailbox, and gives a nice digest of what’s going on in the world that we think should get more attention than it is getting. So thank you, Emma. Thank you all. We’ll talk to you next week.

EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Progress and Backlash

Featuring Fareed Zakaria

When we hear the word ‘revolution,’ we often think of the bloody conflicts of the past. But what constitutes a modern-day revolution within our current economic system and forms of government? Both parties within American politics have seen cultural revolutions and shifting value sets with each decade. Zachary and Emma discuss these changes with CNN host, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria. His latest book, ‘Age of Revolutions,’ explores past and present conflicts that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live.

The Social Media Generation

Featuring Jonathan Haidt

Is social media safe for children? How old do kids need to be to have smartphones? Is Gen Z's mental health declining because of TikTok? Zachary and Emma speak with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of "The Anxious Generation." Social media's effect on brain development, TV Parental Guidelines and the internet's lack thereof, and the influence of video games on young men are discussed here today.

Red, White, and Due: Talking Taxes

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