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Florida Democrats Call For A New Election After GOP Charged With Manipulating Race

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To Miami now, where Democrats are calling for a new election following the arrests of two men charged with manipulating a state Senate race. Prosecutors say a Republican operative misled voters by recruiting a candidate with the same last name as the incumbent and then paid him to run. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Florida and some other states, recruiting ghost or shadow candidates is a well-known political strategy. Katherine Rundle, the state attorney in Miami-Dade County, has seen it before. She says it's always used against an existing officeholder.

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KATHERINE RUNDLE: It's to confuse the public. An unknown person that will not campaign, doesn't put any effort into a campaign, won't reply to media contacts, is suddenly on a ballot.

ALLEN: Recruiting or running as a ghost candidate isn't illegal in Florida, but paying them to run is. Rundle says Frank Artiles, a well-connected Republican operative, paid an auto parts dealer, Alex Rodriguez, $45,000 to run as an independent candidate in a state Senate race in November. Rundle says Artiles invited Rodriguez to his home in a Miami suburb, where he allegedly outlined a simple strategy.

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RUNDLE: With Alex Pedro Rodriguez sharing the last name as the incumbent senator, Jose Javier Rodriguez, his candidacy would confuse voters and influence the outcome of the election.

ALLEN: In this Senate race, the strategy appears to have worked. In an upset, the Democrat state senator, Joseph Javier Rodriguez, was defeated by Republican Ileana Garcia by just 32 votes. The shadow candidate, Alex Rodriguez, received more than 6,000 votes. The man alleged to have concocted the scheme, Republican Frank Artiles, is no stranger to scandal. He was forced to resign his Senate seat three years ago after using a racist slur to refer to two African American lawmakers.

Prosecutors say there's no indication that Garcia, the Republican candidate who won, was part of the alleged plot. But the head of Florida's Democratic Party, Manny Diaz, is leading a call for her to resign and that there be a new election.

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MANNY DIAZ: We will not and we should not permit anyone to steal the integrity of our elections.

ALLEN: Diaz and other Democrats believe others were involved in the alleged fraud. In the weeks preceding and following November's election, news organizations identified three state Senate races in Florida where there appeared to be ghost candidates on the ballot. Mailers supporting the sham candidates went out in all three races, paid for by groups that have hidden the identity of donors. Republican leaders have denied knowing anything about the mailers or who paid for them. Gary Farmer, who leads Democrats in Florida's Senate, says the investigation may turn up some answers.

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GARY FARMER: The warrant speaks to co-conspirators, plural. And repeatedly, Artiles talks about we - we did this; we did that. We encourage the state attorney to continue her aggressive investigation and follow the money.

ALLEN: Farmer and other Democrats want a new election and say they may ask the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct its own investigation.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.