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Florida Election Security Office Will Address Voter Fraud

The proposed office would not have authority to crack down on “ghost” candidates or dark money campaigns because the state prosecutors and state ethics commission already handle campaign finance violations, officials say.

(TNS) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed election security office would have no authority to clamp down on “ghost” candidates or the dark money groups that support them, according to a Senate proposal that outlined the responsibilities of the new office.

Investigators in the new office would be focused on voter fraud — not illegal or unethical behavior by politicians and their campaigns, said state Sen. Travis Hutson, who is sponsoring the Senate’s bill.

State prosecutors and the state’s ethics commission are already handling campaign finance violations, Hutson said Tuesday night.

“If it’s illegal, they shouldn’t be doing it,” the Palm Coast Republican said. “If you want to add more protections and provisions in there, we could certainly look at that. That wasn’t the purview of this bill. This bill was to deal with election fraud — not candidacy fraud.”

No evidence of widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 presidential contest, and Florida garnered bipartisan praise for running a smooth election.

But a ghost candidate scandal has raised questions about three state Senate races won by Republicans in 2020. A dark money group paid for ads promoting the candidates as progressives even though they did no campaigning in an apparent attempt to siphon away votes from the Democrats in those races.

Ben Wilcox, the research director with Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute, said Florida held a relatively seamless election process in 2020 for the first time in years. He questioned the need for a new office to address voter fraud.

“It’s just really confusing to me why they’re addressing election laws that were perfectly fine in the last election,” Wilcox said. “It’s also confusing to me why they would say, if we are going to create this new elections security office, why they would not investigate actual crimes and what I would say is actual voter fraud with the use of those ghost candidates.”

Last year, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office filed charges against former lawmaker Frank Artiles, accusing him of paying a friend nearly $45,000 to run as an independent candidate in a competitive South Florida state senate race in 2020. Artiles’ payments to Alex Rodriguez, which were not recorded on campaign finance reports, violated election finance laws, prosecutors said.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty in August and agreed to testify in the state’s case against Artiles.

Prosecutors said the scheme was intended to confuse voters in Senate District 37, siphon votes away from the Democratic incumbent, Jose Javier Rodriguez, and help Republican Ileana Garcia, who won by 32 votes. Alex Rodriguez received more than 6,000 votes.

A pair of political committees run by a then-GOP consultant spent $550,000 on advertisements promoting Alex Rodriguez and similar independent candidates in two other state senate races.

The committees received all of their funding from a dark money nonprofit called “Grow United” that was run by political consultants working closely with executives for Florida Power & Light. The utility has denied its employees had any role in the spoiler candidate scheme.

The same dark money group that paid for ads promoting Alex Rodriguez also funded the committee that sent ads championing Jestine Iannotti, who ran as an independent in Senate District 9, which includes all of Seminole County and part of Volusia.

Like Rodriguez, Iannotti did no campaigning but received just under 5,800 votes. Republican Jason Brodeur defeated Democrat Patricia Sigman by more than 7,600 votes in that race.

The new office would handle complaints of election law violations, oversee a voter fraud hotline and employ investigators to probe possible irregularities, according to an analysis by Florida Senate staff. The legislation also calls for additional vote-by-mail requirements and annual reviews of county voter registration rolls.

DeSantis’ proposals, first unveiled in November, have drawn criticism from voting rights activists, local elections officials and Democrats who say they fear the legislation would make it harder for people to vote. The Senate’s Ethics and Elections committee advanced its version of the legislation, Senate Bill 524, on Tuesday night. The House Public Integrity and Ethics committee has introduced a similar bill.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo tried to amend the bill to prohibit candidates from acting in “bad faith” to deceive voters by intentionally drawing votes away from a legitimate candidate. The Miami Democrat running for governor called her proposal the “freedom from fake candidates amendment.”

“That is an actual problem we have seen right here in Florida, and we should be actually trying to fix that,” Taddeo said.

The committee voted down the amendment.

Hutson said the provision would be hard to enforce and could scare people away from running for office.

Wilcox, of Integrity Florida, said the state doesn’t have a consistent system for investigating complaints of fraud by candidates or the groups that fund them, noting the responsibility usually falls to state attorneys.

In Seminole County, State Attorney Phil Archer has said he doesn’t have a public corruption unit and his office does not investigate potential crimes, it only prosecutes them. Though the same dark money groups that paid for ads promoting Alex Rodriguez to Miami-area voters also funded ads championing Iannotti, Archer’s office has not investigated whether criminal activity occurred in the Central Florida race.

“I think there’s a vacuum there and a need for somebody to step up and investigate,” Wilcox said.


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