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Latino candidates are on the front lines against election deniers as claims of illegal voting target them

Democrats Adrian Fontes of Arizona and Cisco Aguilar of Nevada are each running for secretary of state against Republican candidates who perpetuate the lie about a stolen 2020 election.
Arizona Secretary of State democratic candidate Adrian Fontes speaks prior to debating Republican challenger Mark Finchem on Sept. 22, 2022, in Phoenix.
 Adrian Fontes, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, as he prepares to debate Republican challenger Mark Finchem in Phoenix on Sept. 22.Matt York / AP file

This year's wave of election denier candidates has put Latinos such as Adrian Fontes, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Arizona, on the front lines against fallout from former President Donald Trump's lie that he won the 2020 election.

Fontes, a Marine and former Maricopa County elections administrator, is running for the job that oversees elections in Arizona. His opponent is Republican state legislator Mark Finchem, a 2020 election denier and self-identified member of the far-right militia group Oath Keepers. Arizona does not have a lieutenant governor, so the secretary of state is next in line to succeed the governor.

"My opponent poses a significant threat, a real and present danger to our democracy," Fontes told NBC News, "and we’d rather fight this battle with ballots than bullets, and so that’s how we are going to defeat him, at the ballot box. ... He’s the last person you want to be the keeper of the seal of the state of Arizona."

In Nevada, Democrat Cisco Aguilar, an attorney and businessperson, is in a tight race against Republican Jim Marchant, who has said a QAnon coalition supporting candidates who are 2020 election deniers convinced him to run for secretary of state.

Nevada Secretary of State candidate Cisco Aguilar speaks at the Christian Embassy Worship Center in Las Vegas on Oct. 16, 2022.
Cisco Aguilar, the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in Nevada, speaks at the Christian Embassy Worship Center in Las Vegas on Oct. 16.David Becker for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Election races for secretary of state, usually a low-profile office, have become the center ring in this country's struggle over how U.S. elections are carried out, as secretaries of state are usually the highest-level officials that ensure fair and accurate elections in their states.

“You have two Latinos in two battleground states who are fighting to protect our democracy, fighting to protect that access to the ballot box,” Aguilar said.

The campaigns for Marchant and Finchem did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

Also in Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat and the only Latina member of the U.S. Senate, is in a tight race against Republican Adam Laxalt, who has said the 2020 election was “rigged.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., in Las Vegas on Oct. 16, 2022.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., in Las Vegas on Oct. 16. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

The election denial narrative, accepted by a large share of Republicans, has gained momentum as the Latino population and its electorate have increased, coinciding with laws mandating voter identification after the record turnout of Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities for former President Barack Obama.

Carolina Rodriguez-Greer, Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota, a progressive Latino voter mobilization organization, said that her group is getting questions through its door knocking and hotline that “let me know that, because of the type of questions being asked, that folks are listening to this harmful rhetoric.” The group was launching television and digital ads over the weekend focused on Finchem, Fontes’ opponent, painting him as anti-democracy.

A recent tracking poll for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found nearly 2 out of 5 Latinos (38%) believe it’s true or mostly true that there was cheating and election fraud in 2020, and that Trump was the election’s true winner.

There are several Latino Republican candidates who are election deniers, too, such as Anna Paulina Luna, a Republican running for election to the U.S. House to represent Florida’s 13th District. She told NBC's Paola Ramos in a June special series that she does not believe Joe Biden is the legitimate president.

In addition, election deniers such as Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who refused to answer when asked if she would accept the results if she lost the governor's race in November, have been touting their number of Latino supporters.

'Our community is demonized'

Election denialism is still “overwhelmingly concentrated among non-Hispanic whites," said Francisco Pedraza, an associate director at Arizona State University's Center for Latinas/os and American Politics Research. "I’m concerned that the risk of election denialism translating into violence is going to, or could potentially center on, Latinos as the villains."

Election denials have already snowballed into increased voter restriction laws, and candidates are linking border security to election fraud by immigrants not in the country legally.

Last year, Texas, where Hispanics are believed to now outnumber whites, passed an election law requiring its secretary of state to regularly review voter rolls and verify voters’ citizenship status. A judge had to order the office of the Texas secretary of state to release data on the voter roll sweeps, including how many legitimate voters had been wrongly flagged.

Unsubstantiated and false claims that immigrants are stealing elections, according to Democratic strategist Kristian Ramos, illustrate how "our community is demonized," as Latinos have become the “bogeyman” in the election-was-stolen narrative.

Last week, the group Voto Latino sued Clean Elections USA, which it claimed was recruiting people to stand and “watch” those dropping off mail-in ballots in Arizona's Maricopa County.

The staking out of mail-in ballot boxes, including by some people who are armed, has been happening in Latino neighborhoods, said Voto Latino CEO Maria Teresa Kumar.

“If you get word that someone is doing that — you are not going to show up,” said Kumar, referring to how intimidation can suppress voter participation.

Latino voters "are at the eye of the storm,” she said, because their turnout in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada in 2020 helped Democrats win those states.

The rigged election lie helps to justify people showing up with military fatigues and weapons at polling sites, Pedraza said. “The imagery and perception that people outside the Latino community are willing to use deadly force on matters of political power sends alarm bells through the entire community,” he said.

Yet some groups believe the right-wing stakeouts could backfire.

Chris Torres, political director for the progressive, which is mobilizing for Fontes in the Arizona secretary of state race, said the group’s efforts have “become so much more alive” since news of the stakeouts became public.

Until this week, the group has had to focus on educating potential voters on the role of secretary of state and the race. But it “became a lot more real because these vigilantes were in areas specifically targeting the community — suddenly, we started talking to people at the door and the conversation has been easier, become more real and about the threat to their vote."

Arizona has been at the center of battles with far-right figures for years, and Latinos and immigrants have played a large role in removing them.

Latinos and immigrants waged a nearly decadelong battle against former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted for refusing to halt traffic patrols that racially profiled immigrants and mobilized against the “show me your papers” law that the courts diluted. In 2020, Latino voters helped Joe Biden win the state.

In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll of 1,088 registered Hispanic voters, 45% said they trusted Democrats to ensure free and fair elections, while 25% said they trusted Republicans to do so. But 28% said they trusted neither party.

Alex Gomez, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, a group that mobilized against Arpaio and Trump, said there is a need for information and facts among Latino voters, who the group has been connecting with as it tries to turn out voters.

"There is confusion of who do I trust," Gomez said.

Pedraza said rather than asking where the election denialism is coming from, people need to ask why it persists after exhaustive investigations showed no evidence of widespread election fraud, and why candidates and officials keep pushing the lie.

“What is to be gained? We need to turn our attention to the consequences of muddying the waters and who benefits from that," Pedraza said. "If it’s concentrated among Republicans and non-Hispanic whites, ask why.”

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