Sham candidates are influencing outcomes in Florida elections. And it’s “not necessarily illegal.” Running sham candidates, or “ballot management,” is the practice of strategically running a no party affiliation (NPA) or third-party candidate not to win, but to siphon votes from a competitor. The 2020 race for Florida Senate District 37 illustrates the issue.
Incumbent Democratic state senator José Javier Rodríguez ran for reelection to his seat representing Florida’s Senate District 37, which he first won in 2016. His competitors were Republican Ileana Garcia and NPA candidate Alex Rodriguez— an auto parts dealer who conveniently shared the same last name as José Javier Rodríguez. Suspiciously, Alex Rodriquez did not appear to want to win the election, failing to campaign, speak publicly, or otherwise engage with voters. By itself, it’s possible Alex Rodriquez was someone who simply wanted to throw his hat into the ring, but perhaps lacked the will or resources for a full-throated campaign. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
As set forth in an affidavit from the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office, Alex Rodriquez conspired with Frank Artiles, a disgraced former state senator, to enter the race for the purpose of confusing voters, to the detriment of incumbent José Javier Rodríguez. The goal: siphon enough votes from José Javier Rodríguez to propel Ileana Garcia to victory. Indeed, Garcia prevailed over her incumbent rival by a mere 34 votes. While it is impossible to know whether voters were confused or truly wanted to support Alex Rodriquez, he garnered 6,382 votes, which was more than enough to change the outcome of the election. Coupled with Artiles telling a crowd on election night that he helped Alex Rodriquez run solely for the purpose of disadvantaging José Javier Rodríguez, it is reasonable to conclude the conspiracy could have unduly influenced the outcome of the election.
However, Artiles running as a sham candidate, even if he had no bona fide desire to represent the voters of District 37, was not itself illegal. The State Attorney’s Office brought charges not for his sham candidacy, but for Alex Rodriquez and Artiles’ alleged violations of Florida’s campaign finance laws. (Alex Rodriquez has since pled guilty and is cooperating against Artiles.) Presumably, had Alex Rodriquez decided to confuse voters just for the sake of advantaging Garcia, no party would have standing to challenge his candidacy, as Florida has no state law prohibiting such conduct. These political machinations are not unique to this election, nor the State of Florida, and both major parties are guilty of using similar tactics.
Just this year, the Seventh Circuit declined to grant relief to a candidate in a similar situation as José Javier Rodríguez. In Gonzales v. Madigan, a candidate for state legislature brought a § 1983 claim against his opponent who allegedly placed two sham candidates on the ballot with Latino surnames (like the plaintiff-candidate). The court held that Madigan had not violated Gonzales equal protection rights and stated that “The Constitution does not authorize the judiciary to . . . penalize a politician for employing a shady strategy that voters tolerate.” Lacking institutional capacity to address the issue, the judiciary looks to voters and representatives for a solution, if any.
At least one state, Connecticut, has implemented state law reforms to curb the influence of sham candidates. Connecticut prohibits the circulation of petitions for rival candidates to prevent candidates from siphoning votes off from a strong rival to a weaker rival. While the Connecticut statute has seen little judicial review, the Connecticut Supreme Court has affirmed its constitutionality. Other states, such as Alaska and Maine, have implemented ranked-choice voting, which would diminish (but not eliminate) the influence of spoiler candidates. Regardless of method, perhaps it is time for Florida voters to stop “tolerating” sham candidates and demand reform for transparent and fair elections.