Now Democrats are demanding answers. It could be an uphill battle.
After the March 18 arrest of a former Florida state senator accused of violating state election laws, state Senate Democrats are urging US Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate “widespread and ongoing” attempts to tamper with elections.
The election ploy involved independent candidates who filed to run in three state Senate races and were endorsed by a mysterious out-of-state organization. The organization, called Proclivity, contributed over half a million dollars to send out mailers designed to appeal to Democratic voters. One candidate, for example, promised to “fight climate change” and “hold the police accountable.”
The Ghost in the Machine
However, these were “ghost” candidates that did not campaign. In one case, the independent, or “ghost” candidate, received enough votes to have conceivably swung the outcome of the election by dividing the Democratic votes.
Republican Ileana García (R-District 37) bested legitimate Democratic candidate José Javier Rodríguez by just 32 votes. However, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said there was no indication that García was part of the alleged plot.
On election night in November, an attendee of a party held at a Lake Mary bar told the Miami Herald that Republican Frank Artiles, who in 2017 resigned from the state Senate after using racial slurs in a conversation with two Black legislators, bragged about his involvement in García’s victory, claiming, “That was me. I did that.”
Subsequently, charges have been filed against Artiles, 47, for allegedly paying Alexis Pedro Rodríguez, 55, of Delray Beach, nearly $45,000 to put his name on the ballot to run in Miami’s Senate District 37.
The felony charges include breaking state campaign contribution laws and making false statements in connection with voting or elections. Rodríguez, the alleged “ghost” candidate, faces the same charges. Both Artiles and Rodríguez bonded out of jail without speaking with reporters.
An Effort to Confuse the Public
According to Fernández Rundle, Artiles asked Rodríguez to change his party affiliation from Republican to Independent and gave him the funds to open a campaign bank account. Artiles then filed Rodríguez’s campaign paperwork with the state’s department of elections in Tallahassee.
“Running a ghost candidate like Alex Pedro Rodríguez is not a crime in Florida,” Fernández Rundle said. “These things are not crimes. Is it an attack on our democracy, is it a dirty political trick? Absolutely. This kind of trick is always used against an existing office holder. It’s to confuse the public.”
An Uphill Climb
Fernández Rundle also wrote in a statement that given the potential multi-state and multi-jurisdictional aspects of what has been outlined so far concerning these Florida elections, “a cooperative investigational approach can offer the best option to fully uncover the truth and may supply the most aggressive approach aimed at keeping our election process clean and transparent.”
Florida Democrats are also calling for Senate President Wilton Simpson to form a special committee to investigate “widespread and ongoing” election attacks in the state. However, this could be a steep uphill climb for the state Democrats in the Republican-controlled Legislature.