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Election chief in key state of Arizona vows to 'prebunk' lies

Three days a week, Adrian Fontes lifts weights at 4:00 am to decompress from running elections in one of America's crucial battleground states.

"The other two days, I give myself a break and I get to the gym at five," the Arizona secretary of state said in an exclusive interview with AFP. "It is a high-pressure job and there is a lot at stake."

Voters in the southwestern US state head to the polls next month to vote in the presidential primary elections, which Joe Biden and Donald Trump are projected to win -- setting them up for a historic rematch this fall.

The Arizona contest will be a litmus test for the staying power of disinformation.

After Biden narrowly carried the state in the 2020 election, Arizona became ground zero for baseless fraud claims boosted by Trump and his allies seeking to overturn the results.

Fontes, 53, said that his office is working to "prebunk" some of those falsehoods.

"A lot of the claims are the same that we've heard year in and year out for the last several cycles," the Democrat said during a visit to Washington.

AFP has debunked several of the most widespread narratives, including a false claim from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake that ballot printing issues in the 2022 midterm elections meant Democrats manipulated the results.

"I'm confident that we're not going to have the same issue because I'm pretty sure folks are going to be testing their printers as much and as well as they're going to be testing (ballot) tabulators," Fontes said.

Still, the threat of disinformation -- including AI-generated media -- looms over this year's race.

"With the introduction of generative artificial intelligence, which is really just an amplifier for that bad messaging, we've got a lot of other concerns there that we are dealing with and figuring out how to address," Fontes said.

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday outlawed AI robocalls after a Biden impersonation discouraged voting in New Hampshire’s primary.

- Guns and voter intimidation -

Biden flipped Arizona in 2020, handing the state to Democrats for just the second time in seven decades. But his small margin of victory -- less than 12,000 votes -- created fertile ground for disinformation.

Fontes, a Marine Corps veteran and Arizona native, said one of his "favorite" falsehoods stems from a Republican-led audit in 2021, during which someone floated the possibility that fraudulent ballots flown to the state from southeast Asia contained bamboo fibers.

"Then all of a sudden the tail wags the dog and that audit started looking for bamboo strands in the ballot -- when it originated from a guy using a ridiculous example of what could be one of the ridiculous accusations," Fontes said.

That partisan review, conducted by a firm called Cyber Ninjas, did not find any evidence of significant voter fraud in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix city.

Neither did multiple hand recounts nor a forensic audit of election equipment.

Nevertheless, inspired in part by vote smuggling theories, armed people wielding video cameras showed up at ballot drop boxes across the state during the midterms. The US Justice Department said the actions raised "serious concerns of voter intimidation."

Fontes told AFP his office is "working with our law enforcement partners at the federal, state and local level to make sure that voters don't feel intimidated" at polling locations in 2024.

- 'Threat scenario' -

Due partly to the threat of harassment and violence, several states have reported a shortage of poll workers leading up to the 2024 election -- including Arizona.

Cochise County, for example, in December had roughly half of the 250 workers needed to administer the primaries, according to local media. Statewide, 12 of 15 county election chiefs have left since 2020.

Recruitment is not a new issue, but Fontes said it is "much more pointed now" -- and those willing to take the roles understand the "threat scenario."

"They really want to do this work because they understand the value of it," he said.

Asked why he decided to run for secretary of state in 2022, Fontes said he has a "deep sense of duty."

"Elections, at the end of the day, are sort of that golden thread that runs through the whole fabric of our society. And there are people out there trying to pull that thread out -- they want the entirety of our society to disintegrate," he said.

"That's why I'm doing this job: to protect all of it from those folks that would do us all harm."

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