‘Put on your seat belt’: South Florida braces for election season shenanigans

Boleteros. Sham candidates. Artificial intelligence.

With races now locked in for the Aug. 20 primary ballot, South Florida is once again in election season, a five-month crush of politicking that can overwhelm voters with scams, schemes and a deluge of political advertisements of questionable veracity.

Dirty tricks have long defined politics in South Florida, a political battleground that easily draws millions of dollars in spending each election year. To win, politicians seeking offices both powerful and parochial have often been willing to engage in tactics that range from suspect to outright illegal.

Voters will have to be vigilant.

“One of the things we know is Miami’s been the wild, wild west when it comes to electoral politics, where all sorts of shenanigans, manipulations, tricks and scams and schemes have just become normalized,” said Fernand Amandi, a longtime Democratic pollster. “Whether or not we see that trend continue now in 2024, I think time will tell, but it’s better to assume and expect the worst.”

While there are signs that Florida won’t see the same level of exorbitant spending on the November presidential race that the state has become used to over the past several decades, political operatives on both sides of the aisle expressed little doubt that Miami-Dade’s elections will still be flooded with money.

In the race for Miami-Dade sheriff, for example, candidates have already spent over $350,000 with the August primary election still more than two months away. In the race for county mayor, the amount of money dropped is already approaching $400,000. That number, several Democratic and Republican political operatives said, is likely just a fraction of what will ultimately be spent on those races.

In 2020, for example, political ad spending in the Miami area topped $142 million, according to Christopher Brimer, a partner at the Atlanta-based agency Canal Partners Media. And while much of that money was spent on the White House race between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, congressional and local candidates still pumped millions of dollars into English and Spanish-language advertising blitzes, including some that proved misleading or even blatantly false.

Florida isn’t expected to see the same levels of ad spending in the 2024 presidential election that it saw four years ago. Trump’s campaign has yet to go up on the air in the state, while Biden’s campaign has spent only sparingly in Florida amid concerns from some Democrats that the Sunshine State has shifted too far to the right in recent years.

Still, Miami political operatives on both sides are holding out for a wave of spending in local races.

“Consultants used to make money on the national races,” said Kevin Cabrera, a county commissioner who served as the state director of Trump’s Florida campaign in 2020. “But now there’s the prospect that there’s more in play at the local level. There’s still going to be money moving around.”

This year’s elections are particularly unique. For the first time in decades, Miami-Dade voters will have the chance to cast their ballot for several county-wide offices, including sheriff, clerk of courts and supervisor of elections.

“It’s a lot of elected people that are Type A personalities with consultants and other interested parties that are all packed into one county,” said Republican state Rep. Alex Rizo, who also heads the Miami-Dade GOP. “And everyone is trying to fight for those votes.”

Lingering scandals

South Florida has a long and sordid history of electoral shenanigans, ranging from relatively low-stakes schemes to high-profile scandals that rocked the political foundation of the state’s largest metro area.

One recurring scheme involves straw candidates recruited to a race to hurt an opponent – a strategy deployed twice, by either side, in the battles for a south Miami-Dade congressional seat in the 2010s. Prosecutors say the same scheme was deployed in 2020 by Frank Artiles, a GOP operative and disgraced former state senator accused of paying an auto parts dealer to run as an independent candidate in a 2020 state Senate race.

Artiles, who has pleaded not guilty, is set to stand trial in September. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

There are still other outstanding issues. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has been locked in an investigation for over two years into claims by elderly Miami-Dade residents that their party affiliations were changed from Democrat to Republican after they were approached by canvassers.

It’s unclear how far along investigators are in their probe into the alleged scheme. The State Attorney’s Office did not respond to the Herald’s requests for comment on the investigation, though a spokesperson for the office said earlier this year that the probe was still open and ongoing.

That’s only a small slice of the scandals and schemes that have plagued Miami over the years. Ballot-harvesting operations have also been a recurring problem – so serious that a judge tossed the 1997 Miami mayoral election.

Fixing problems

State lawmakers have sought to address some of the problems. Candidates now have to be members of a political party for a year before they can run on that party’s ticket, for example, making it harder for operatives to recruit “ghost” candidates. Political ads that use artificial intelligence to generate photos, video or other content have to be appropriately labeled.

Still, several Miami politicians and operatives said that AI could be the next frontier for political shenanigans in South Florida. The technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, prompting state lawmakers to pass rules requiring disclaimers for AI-generated political content.

Annette Taddeo, a Democratic former state senator who’s running for Miami-Dade clerk of courts, isn’t a stranger to the harsh realities of Miami politics. She recalled Republican attacks from 2017, when she ran successfully in a special election for a state Senate seat, deeming her a communist and supporter of the FARC guerrillas in her native Colombia.

“It’s win at any cost. I believe there’s something to be said about accepting a loss and understanding that you just weren’t successful, and listening to the voters and figuring out what you need to do,” Taddeo said. “Unfortunately, there are people that are willing to do anything to win, including illegal things.”

Now, with several county-wide offices on the ballot this year, it’s AI that could be the next big disruptor to Miami-Dade elections, she said.

“It’s only going to get worse,” Taddeo said. “Put on your seat belt because it ain’t gonna be pretty.”

Rizo, the state lawmaker and Miami-Dade GOP chairman, sponsored a bill earlier this year requiring certain disclaimers for political content stemming from generative AI. He said that while his bill – which was signed into law in April – was a positive first step for regulating the use of such technology, Miamians will still have to pay attention throughout election season.

“Until it’s actually seen in action. Everything is just up in the air,” he said. “I would imagine we’re still going to see some things.”