“Election steal” took on a whole new meaning in Florida this year — and it has exposed a vulnerability in how we vote that invites more hacks in the future without an election method upgrade.
Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez’s state Senate re-election campaign was certain to be close. Rodriguez’s challenger, Ileana Garcia, was well-funded and the co-founder of Latinas for Trump. Still, Rodriguez was optimistic and garnered key endorsements from police unions and teachers unions alike.
Then a third “independent” candidate materialized. Intriguingly, Alex Rodriguez shared a surname with the incumbent. But little else could be determined about him.
He did not appear for candidate forums or debates or have a campaign website. He didn’t raise a single dollar other than a small loan from himself. When a local TV station asked him for a picture, he didn’t respond.
It’s almost as if Alex Rodriguez wanted to run for office without anyone knowing who he was. It’s as if Alex Rodriguez appeared on the ballot to potentially confuse supporters of Jose Javier Rodriguez, and perhaps siphon away crucial votes in a competitive contest.
Sure enough, Ileana Garcia defeated Rodriguez by the tightest of margins — just 34 votes. Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, received more than 6,000 votes despite not running a campaign.
Now Florida prosecutors are looking into whether Alex Rodriguez might have been a shadow candidate, propped up by people looking to spoil the race. He now claims he doesn’t even live in the district.
Such chicanery has a long and disreputable history. Both Republicans and Democrats attempt to weaponize “spoiler” candidates in hopes of siphoning votes from their strongest opponent and eking out a plurality victory.
This year Republican operatives helped musician Kanye West get on presidential ballots, while Democratic operatives spent millions boosting conservative U.S. Senate candidates in Kentucky and South Carolina.
Don’t expect consultants to stop. Nor will Russian hackers and others seeking to disrupt our politics. Policymakers must seize the initiative. One solution would be a traditional runoff election as Florida used to have for all its primaries. But that comes with downsides like the expensive slugfests we’re seeing in Georgia right now.
A better approach would be ranked choice voting, a proven tool that gives voters the power to rank candidates in order rather than just pick one. Already the law in Alaska and Maine for presidential elections, ranked choice voting is fair to candidates and voters alike and makes this kind of democracy-damaging mischief-making impossible.
Boosting “spoilers” only works because in a single-round system, it’s possible for a candidate to win with less than half the vote when more than two candidates run. Ranked choice voting gives voters an insurance policy. If a candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, they win, like any other election. But if no one reaches that mark, an instant runoff takes place. The candidate in last place is eliminated, and his or her votes are counted for each voter’s next choice.
In Florida, for example, neither Garcia nor Jose Rodriguez earned more than half the vote. Alex Rodriguez would have then been eliminated, and his supporters’ backup choices would have tallied. There would be no incentive for partisans to put someone with a similar name on the ballot, and no purpose in trying to confuse voters.
It’s an absolute certainty that this tactic is coming to more of our elections. It would be irresponsible for our policymakers to not solve this problem with ranked choice voting. Let more candidates run.
But let’s be certain that voters — not dirty tricksters — have the ultimate power to pick winners and losers.
Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization. Perry Waag serves on the board of Rank My Vote Florida. They wrote this for InsideSources.com.