PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA — “Ghost candidates” on Florida ballots in 2020 appear to have swayed election results. Now, just over two months before the general election, the topic is resurfacing among Republicans and Democrats.
Several state representatives, including Carlos Guillermo Smith and Anna Eskamani, have recently spoken out about so-called “ghost candidates” or write-in candidates during the 2020 election. They’ve raised concerns about the lack of transparency and corporate corruption across the state.
CAN CHANGE THE OUTCOME
These “ghost candidates” can change the outcome of an election. First, a fake or little-known person will register as a candidate with the Department of Elections. Then, they send out mailers or emails attacking the other candidate while encouraging people to vote for them. On election day, the favored candidate receives more votes because the “ghost” has taken votes away from the other candidate.
Democrats in Florida have been focusing on three state senate races – one in Orlando and two in Miami. Outside money and “ghost candidates,” who siphoned votes in those races, flipped the seats from Democrats to Republicans, Eskamami argues. In January, Eskanami and several other representatives requested an audit of Florida Power & Light's finances, but the state board denied their request.
Prosecutors have combed through records in multiple cases, following a trail of “dark money” from shady organizations and shell corporations. They've also subpoenaed information about a $600,000 transfer from an organization related to an ongoing criminal case in Miami-Dade County.
But now, when asked about the same strategy used to help them win seats, Democrats are silent on the issue. The Florida Standard uncovered that the method might have been used even more by Democrats in the 2020 election cycle.
Three congressional races, in particular, show the pattern. In congressional district 13, Rep. Val Demmings, a current candidate for U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio, won the congressional seat by a large margin over Vennia Francoise. But a significant amount of votes went to Sufiyah Yasmine, a write-in candidate on the ballot.
In District 10, where Charlie Crist won the race against Republican Anna Paulina Luna, it appears he had help from an unknown write-in candidate, Jacob Curnow, who registered as a Republican.
Maria Salazar was challenged in district 7 by Frank E. Polo Sr., another Republican entry that appeared as a write-in with a campaign address registered to an apartment complex on Fontainebleau Boulevard in western Miami.
WON’T ANSWER QUESTIONS
Crist’s campaign would not answer questions about “ghost candidates” in his 2020 race for congress. But on June 29, Crist pressured Governor Ron DeSantis to condemn riots that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. “...his silence = endorsement?” Crist tweeted.
Former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson ran as a write-in in district 6 to help defeat Republican Michael Waltz – a move that perplexed the other candidates. Grayson told The St. Augustine Record that he wanted to ensure that incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz would have an opponent if the Democratic challenger who wins the primary drops out.
ONE OF MANY TACTICS
Bogus write-in candidates aren't the only way that politicians try to mislead voters. Some groups have formed nonprofits that look like grassroots movements. People donate money to nonprofit groups to conceal their identity – large donations made through an organization are harder to track.
Political Action Committees, or PACs, may also hide the sources of their donations. In records, organizations must disclose only limited information, such as the treasurer's name or chairman. And often, fake organizations are set up by relatives, friends, or paid individuals who don't work to earn the title.
“Dark money” nonprofits use large and small donations from across the state to influence elections by funding rallies, mailers, and marketing. They also use fake candidates to seed doubt and dig up dirt on other opponents.