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Florida watchdog group’s report raises questions about use of ‘ghost candidates’

Integrity Florida said there isn’t evidence of any ghost candidates in statewide races this year.
Voters drop off mail-in ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in Tampa on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Voters drop off mail-in ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office in Tampa on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2022|Updated Dec. 5, 2022

Government watchdog group Integrity Florida on Monday released a report on the use of so-called “ghost candidates” to affect elections, with the group’s research director saying the use of such candidates in three state Senate elections in 2020 “crossed the legal and moral line.”

The report in particular detailed a 2020 Senate race in South Florida won by Republican Sen. Ileana Garcia, saying that a “ghost candidate” in the race spoiled the outcome by intentionally diverting votes away from the Democratic incumbent. Garcia ultimately won by just 32 votes.

“It amounted to a political dirty trick that at the very least would be considered a cynical take on democracy and worse, a potentially criminal scheme to mislead voters and steal an election,” Ben Wilcox, Integrity Florida’s research director, said in the report.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan nonprofit, laid out several policy proposals, including eliminating “dark money” funding, in which certain organizations are not legally required to disclose the sources of their money, in order to help provide more transparency.

It also said it believes a Department of Justice investigation into Florida Power & Light’s involvement in election manipulation is justified. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called for such an investigation in late July.

Records show that FPL’s political consultants used a nonprofit to steer funding toward a no-party candidate in a 2018 state Senate race; that candidate helped split the liberal vote and swing the race in favor of the Republican candidate. Unlike in the three 2020 Senate races, the 2018 no-party candidate was not a “ghost candidate,” because he did campaign. Integrity Florida called the 2018 race a “trial run for the ghost candidate scheme that would play out at the state Senate level in 2020.”

FPL has denied any wrongdoing or involvement.

In the 2020 Senate race ultimately won by Garcia, no-party candidate Alex Rodriguez ran and received more than 6,000 votes despite not campaigning. He had the same last name as the Democratic incumbent, Jose Javier Rodriguez.

Alex Rodriguez later admitted to taking $45,000 in bribes from former Miami state Sen. Frank Artiles to run in the race. Artiles is facing criminal charges.

Earlier this year, a Seminole County Republican Party chairman was found guilty of a campaign finance violation as part of a scheme to siphon votes in favor of a “ghost candidate” in the Central Florida Senate race.

Integrity Florida says it didn’t see evidence of any ghost candidates in statewide races in this election cycle, potentially because those involved in the 2020 races are facing criminal charges. But it said there was one report of a potential spoiler candidate in an Osceola County Commission race, though the accused “ghost candidate” has denied being paid to run and said he was a serious candidate, according to the report.

The report also detailed a loophole used to keep some voters out of certain primary election races.

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Though Florida is a closed primary state — meaning only voters registered with a political party can vote in that party’s primary — a constitutional amendment passed in 1998 said if there is an election where the winner will have no opposition in the general election, all voters can participate in the primary, even if they are of another party or not registered with a party.

But the primary stays closed to only voters in a single political party if there is a write-in candidate. Write-in candidates do not have to pay a fee or collect petition signatures to qualify.

This year, two Republican Pasco county commissioners won primary elections that were closed because of write-in candidates, despite facing no opposition in the general election. Both write-in candidates dropped out after the primary, raised no money and made no public profiles. One candidate, who ran as a write-in candidate against Commissioner Gary Bradford, made a campaign donation to Bradford and had Bradford’s campaign signs in his yard.

Integrity Florida, in its report, recommended requiring write-in candidates to have to either submit a filing fee or gather petitions as a requirement to run.