3 lessons Adrian Fontes clearly hasn’t learned from Michele Reagan (at his peril)

Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes drew comparisons to his predecessor, Helen Purcell, following polling place snafus in last month’s primary elections.

The broad point is clear: Both created voter-access problems on Election Day and then put the blame on others. Purcell’s blunder paved the way for Fontes’ current tenure.

But a more instructive comparison for Fontes would be Secretary of State Michele Reagan.

Here’s why: 

What Fontes clearly hasn’t learned

Purcell’s mistake was a gargantuan one — drastically reducing the number of polling places that resulted in confusion and logjams, reflected by thousands of people waiting well into the night to cast their ballots in the 2016 Arizona presidential preference election.

The troubles in the Aug. 28 primary, mostly but not exclusively involving polling places that weren’t ready to open at 6 a.m., by law, were nowhere close in magnitude or duration.

It is the response that has stoked the controversy. In that regard, the lessons of Reagan and her series of missteps seem more relevant — lessons lost on Fontes.

1. The buck stops with election officials

When publicity pamphlets for the special election in May 2016 that included Prop. 123 — an education-funding proposal that resolved a longstanding lawsuit failed to be sent to more than 200,000 households — Reagan deflected responsibility and instead pinned the blame on a vendor. The vendor in turn pointed a finger back at her.

Fontes has steadfastly said many polling places weren’t ready to open at 6 a.m. for the Aug. 28 primary because of the fault of a vendor charged with providing IT support for voter check-ins. The vendor in this case, likewise, pointed a finger back at government. 

(While Purcell callously blamed voters initially for the long lines, she quickly reversed course and took ownership of her mistake.) 

2. Don’t withhold potential bad news

Reagan’s bigger failing in the pamphlet episode was withholding the news for some two weeks until reporters started asking questions. It escalated a neglectful action into something more — made into a full-blown conflagration when state Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued a scathing report of her office’s actions.

The lesson on quick and full disclosure didn’t register with Fontes. 

His department knew as early as 2 p.m. on the day before the primary election that the IT vendor was way behind schedule in readying the check-in system. However confident or hopeful Fontes may have been that he would have all systems go by morning (with help from staff and technicians from the IT vendor), it would have been prudent for him to notify the county Board of Supervisors, the public and the media about potential problems.

For that matter, he could have in subsequent days detailed what he found out and what he now seeks to learn of the debacle.

None of that happened.

3. Follow through on pledges

Fontes and Reagan rode into office as agents of change. They pledged to modernize the office, including election-related services, and make it more accountable with the public. Both have, to a large extent.

But they also come across as cavalier at times. Reagan famously touted from Day 1 of office the launch of a website that would allow the public to track and collate candidates’ campaign financing. A fully functioning website that does this remains to be seen.

And when reporters pressed about repeated delays and higher projected costs, Reagan brushed off the concerns as unfounded or inconsequential. Her self-imposed deadlines, in other words, didn’t matter.

In the wake of primary election problems, Fontes went on Facebook Live to proclaim a report answering each and every question would be released by late last week.

Then he decided the report can’t be released, after all, apparently because he’s more accountable to department lawyers than to the public.

Reagan’s slip-ups occurred mostly in the first two years of her term. But they defined her enough to make her vulnerable — she lost to a virtual unknown in last month’s GOP primary. Voters proved to possess a low tolerance and both a long-term memory as well a short-term one (Purcell).

Fontes should take heed as he heads into the second half of his own tenure as county recorder.

Reach Kwok at akwok@azcentral.com.

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