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Amid Election Fraud Crackdown, DeSantis Ignores Ghost Candidates

Three candidates’ 2020 campaigns were funded by dark money and one received funds illegally from a former state senator to help skew the election for the Republican candidates, yet no official penalty has been served.

(TNS) — Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants a new law enforcement division to investigate and punish election crimes, but he’s said little about the ongoing criminal case involving “ghost” candidates that helped swing one South Florida state Senate race in the GOP’s favor and influenced two others.

He also hasn’t proposed anything to combat the tactic.

That’s led Democrats to suspect his motives in pushing the election crimes crackdown, a legislative proposal that includes increasing the penalty for ballot harvesting, requiring more frequent clean up of voter rolls and eliminating the use of unsecure drop boxes.

“It seems completely politically motivated,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “Governor Ron DeSantis wants to set himself up to be president in 2024 and part of that means going along with some of this extreme rhetoric around election fraud that isn’t accurate.”

Florida election laws are relatively lax. If there’s no criminal investigation, a complaint can be made to the Florida Elections Commission, but the panel can take several months or more than a year to investigate and suggest a punishment, usually a small fine.

A dark money group helped fund three “ghost candidates” in state senate elections in 2020, one in Central Florida and two in South Florida. In the Senate District 37 race, Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez by 34 votes. A third candidate, Alex Rodriguez, got 3 percent of the vote, enough to determine the outcome.

Alex Rodriguez and the two other candidates ran as independents but dark money groups funded mailers touting typically Democratic issues. Rodriguez was paid $44,000 by former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, to put his name up for the election.

He was charged with a crime and later agreed to a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to accepting illegal campaign contributions and lying on campaign documents. He will receive one year of house arrest and three years probation in return for testifying against Artiles, whose case remains pending.

In October the Florida Elections Commission recommended Rodriguez be censured and fined $20,000, which was $24,000 less than he was paid to put his name on the ballot.

It’s up to DeSantis, though, to determine whether the recommendation should be carried out, and he hasn’t yet made a decision. His spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said his office must work through previous FEC recommendations first.

Also, neither DeSantis nor GOP legislative leaders have released any proposal to increase penalties or crack down on the use of “ghost” candidates paid by dark money groups.

A day after the vote, DeSantis gave the 2020 election a clean bill of health, with no major vote-counting delays, disruptions or other debacles that plagued the 2018 elections that pushed him into the governor’s mansion. That year saw three recounts, including DeSantis’ race, delays in tallying votes in Broward and Palm Beach counties and an ill-designed ballot in Broward.

Despite that, DeSantis and other Republican-controlled states pushed to change election laws this year, after former President Donald Trump’s continuous pressing of his false claim of widespread voter fraud that deprived him of victory.

DeSantis signed that bill (SB 90) live on Fox News while excluding other news outlets, hailing the measure as “the strongest election integrity measures in the country.”

“We’re making sure we’re enforcing voter ID … We’re also banning ballot harvesting,” DeSantis told Fox News. “We’re not going to let political operatives go and get satchels of votes to dump them in some drop box.”

The new law prohibits supervisors of elections from using private grants. It also restricts the use of ballot drop boxes, which must be monitored at all times. When DeSantis signed the law in May he said he preferred to eliminate drop boxes altogether but the Legislature wouldn’t go along.

Now, he’s pushing to “prohibit unsecure, haphazard drop box locations.” Also, it was DeSantis who paved the way for drop boxes in a 2019 elections law designed to address problems stemming from the troubled recounts in 2018.

When DeSantis unveiled his proposal Nov. 3, he said he still doesn’t think drop boxes should be an option but didn’t include eliminating them as part of his plan. Pushaw said that while he saw drop boxes as a new option in 2019, some local election officials weren’t able to monitor them and provide security, so it might be better to remove them because they could be targeted by ballot harvesters.

Although supporters said the new law was designed to reassure voters of the integrity of the elections, some GOP voters weren’t satisfied.

The Lake County Republican Party passed a resolution calling on DeSantis to order an audit of the 2020 elections in Florida. Trump won the state by 3 percent, the largest margin for a top-ticket race in decades, but the resolution cites “concern” by “many voters” the election was “inaccurate.”

There’s been no evidence shown of widescale voter fraud in 2020 in Florida. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened before and hasn’t affected the outcome of races, albeit on a smaller scale, such as primaries and municipal elections.

In 2001 Florida Republicans removed a ban on ballot harvesting, the tactic of collecting absentee ballots on a large scale, typically in a nursing home from voters who aren’t able to easily cast a ballot in person. Not until Trump raised the specter of potential mail ballot fraud, a traditional GOP strength in Florida, did Republican lawmakers seek to address the issue. The new law, SB 90, restricts who can possess ballots to immediate family members.

In 2016, Palm Beach County investigators found “clear-cut evidence of voter fraud” in a Democratic primary, with 300 voters receiving mail ballots despite not requesting them and campaigns for former Rep. Al Jacquet and Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard retrieving them and mailing them for voters. But investigators dropped the case.

No similar cases of voter fraud have been uncovered during the 2020 election, but Trump’s Republican base in Florida is still demanding an audit of the 2020 results.

DeSantis’ proposal doesn’t include that. His Secretary of State Laurel Lee said a routine audit was already completed and further audits aren’t necessary.

Pushaw said DeSantis’ proposal isn’t in response to anything that happened in 2020, but in line with his desire to ensure the integrity of elections.

“Restoring public trust in elections requires the governor to take proactive, rather than reactive, steps,” Pushaw wrote in an email. “Merely waiting for bad actors to exploit known vulnerabilities in an election, and then attempting to address voter fraud or electoral violations after the fact, is not an effective strategy to assure the public that every legal vote will count in accordance with the law.”

Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said he wasn’t concerned about a backlash from voters if lawmakers don’t demand an audit.

“I think they know I haven’t been afraid to ask questions,” Baxley said. “A lot of the things that they’re concerned about probably are more prevalent in other states. I don’t think they’re upset with me. They know I give them a proper hearing.”

But lawmakers also might not deliver everything DeSantis is requesting in his elections law package. Baxley said lawmakers will be hesitant to take on a new election bill next year.

“We always want to try to collaborate with the governor but we also want to be cautious,” Baxley said. “We are in an election year and we just made some major changes last session … I think we will be doing some of it, but it’s still kind of under sorting out what is needed, if anything.”

No bill has been filed in line with DeSantis’ proposal yet, but Baxley said lawmakers will likely pass something during the 60-day legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

©2021 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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