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After losing the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump launched an unprecedented campaign to lie about his loss and say that he had been cheated. None of the claims stood up under scrutiny or in court, but since then, Republicans nationwide have been rushing to pass laws and regulations which they claim will promote “election integrity.”

While these laws appear designed to restrict Democratic voting groups, they also serve another purpose: to distract attention from a complex and multifaceted election manipulation effort by Republicans to trick Democratic voters into voting for progressive-sounding third party candidates.

Since they began coalescing as a political movement in the 1940s, far-right Republicans have always been interested in minoritarian power schemes, but as the party’s ability to attract popular support for its agenda continues to shrink, reactionary activists appear to be doubling down on electoral machinations.

It’s not exactly news that Republicans have won the presidential national popular vote only once since 1992 and they consistently receive most of their votes from the shrinking “Baby Boom” and “Silent” generations.

A healthy political party would respond to this situation by moderating its anti-government positions and dialing back on white Christian nationalism to broaden its appeal. But instead of moderating its views to seek a majority of voters, GOP elites have focused instead on minority rule strategy with three major components: 1) redrawing legislative boundaries to dilute the electoral power of voters seen as loyal to Democrats, 2) making it harder for Democratic-leaning groups to vote, and 3) dividing the Democratic vote by supporting third-party candidates and pundits who very often are entirely funded by Republicans.

Because the first two tactics have received a fair amount of journalistic scrutiny in recent years (see especially David Daley’s book Ratf**cked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy), this essay will focus on the third component of splitting the Democratic vote.

While a few Democrats in recent years have been exposed for dirty election tricks, since their takeover of the GOP, reactionaries have been much more reliant on electoral malfeasance to win. That’s because their goals of slashing government spending have always been unpopulareven among Republican voters.

The dark artists of reactionary electioneering have known from the very beginning that they represent views disapproved of by the general public, even as they have pretended to represent the “silent majority.” Paul Weyrich, Republicans’ most influential institution-builder, made the calculations clear in a secret 1980 speech to a group of white Southern pastors who later became the nucleus for the Christian Right.

“Many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome, good government,” he said derisively. “They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”


Though the tactic of manufacturing fake opposition has been used by some GOP operatives to make false guilt-by-association attacks, more often, Republicans have used real or fake left-wing opposition as a means of diverting Democratic votes. Why? Because getting a Democrat to vote for a hopeless minor party candidate is a much easier task than persuading one to vote Republican.

The use of “ringer” or “ghost” candidates has a long and dishonorable history in many localities, but it became elevated to the highest levels of Republican political strategy during the presidency of Richard Nixon when his Christian supremacist speechwriter Pat Buchanan circulated a confidential memo in 1971 called “Dividing the Democrats“ which, among other things, encouraged White House staffers to stop wasting their time trying to win over Black voters and instead focus on diverting them:

“Top-level consideration should be given to ways and means to promote, assist, and fund a Fourth Party candidacy of the Left Democrats and/or the Black Democrats,” Buchanan wrote. “There is nothing that can so advance the President’s chances for re-election — not a trip to China, not four-and-a-half percent unemployment — as a realistic black Presidential campaign.”

The memo subsequently called for spreading bumper stickers “in the ghettoes of the country” demanding that Democrats appoint a Black presidential or vice presidential nominee.

Boosting fake or hopeless independent Black candidates became a staple of Republican campaigning in subsequent years after Nixon left the White House. In his 2020 confessional memoir, It Was All a Lie, former party consultant Stuart Stevens wrote in detail about how the practice worked for him in his first-ever congressional campaign and for other Republican candidates:

What we needed in the [Jon] Hinson campaign was a […] dynamic of an independent African American drawing black votes from the Democrat. And we had one: Evan Doss Jr., a thirty-year-old African American, had qualified to run as an independent for the congressional seat. The problem was that he wasn’t famous [….] So I did the obvious thing: I made ads that showed the Republican, the Democrat, and the independent, Evan Doss. I did it like a public service announcement: ‘In the Fourth Congressional District, three candidates are running.’ I put all three on the screen with their names. ‘Jon Hinson is the Republican nominee. John Hampton Stennis is the Democratic nominee. Evan Doss is running as an independent and would be the first African American candidate elected to Congress in Mississippi since Reconstruction.’

That was it. I thought it was terribly clever, and it didn’t bother me a bit on any ‘I’m playing the race card’ kind of level. What could be wrong with informing voters of the choice they faced? And it worked beautifully. On Election Day, Hinson won with 51.6 percent of the vote followed by John Hampton Stennis with 26.4 percent, and Evan Doss with 19 percent. Every vote for Doss was a vote that would have gone to Stennis. […]

In my first race, I had stumbled onto a truth as basic and immutable as the fact that water freezes below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit: race was the key in which much of American politics, and certainly all of southern politics was played. It was really very simple: The Democratic candidate needed 90-plus percent of black votes to win. If a significant portion voted for a third party, the Republican would win.


Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader is pictured during his 2008 independent presidential bid. Photo: Sage Ross


But Republican activists have not limited themselves to backing Black candidates and causes. Throughout his long life of deranged activism, the late publisher, presidential candidate and cult leader Lyndon LaRouche provided an almost textbook case of how delusional leftists can be manipulated for right-wing purposes.

After beginning his political career as a member of the Socialist Workers Party in 1949, LaRouche and his U.S. Labor Party (USLP) began working with anyone who would have him, including the Liberty Lobby, an organization headed by white nationalist and Holocaust denier Willis Carto.

The association was a useful one, Carto wrote in 1981, because “[n]o group has done so much to confuse disorient and disunify the Left as they have…. The USLP should be encouraged, as should all similar breakaway groups from the Left, for this is the only way that the Left can be weakened and broken.”

In more recent years, the primary focus of GOP divide-and-conquer efforts has been on promoting candidates affiliated with the Green Party, helping them gain ballot access and providing financial and staffing support.

A group called the Republican Leadership Council launched a television ad campaign which promoted the 2000 Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader to left-of-center voters as the more progressive alternative to Democrat Al Gore. The GOP ad buys in support of Nader were the only television ads that aired on his behalf, the Associated Press reported. Several subsequent studies found that Nader’s candidacy almost certainly caused Gore to lose the states of Florida and New Hampshire.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Republican operatives provided organizing support to get Nader listed as a candidate on several states’ ballots. One of the consultants in that effort, an Arizona man named Tim Mooney, resurfaced in a 2010 scheme that gifted signed petitions to put an entire slate of Green Party candidates on the ballot in Texas, funded by $200,000 in undisclosed donor money.

In 2006, Republicans in Pennsylvania contributed all of a Green Party Senate candidate’s initial funds, save for $30 donated by the candidate himself. In 2010, an Arizona GOP political operative recruited homeless people to run for three different statewide offices under the Green banner.

During the 2016 presidential race, Bernie Marcus, one of the largest Republican donors over the decades, set up a secret effort to support Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Four years later, GOP operatives in Wisconsin worked to get Howie Hawkins, the Green presidential nominee in 2020, onto the ballot.


An image of a campaign flier promoting Jestine Iannotti, a Florida woman who state law enforcement officials say was used by Florida Republicans to promote a fake candidacy.


Unfortunately, promoting and funding other-party candidates for illegitimate reasons is not typically a crime, but there are some limits that current campaign finance regulations place on such efforts. In recent years, Republicans in the state of Florida have become infamous locally for violating the law in their attempts to boost ringer candidates.

Justin Lamar Sternad, a candidate in the 2012 Democratic primary for Florida’s 26th congressional district, pled guilty to secretly coordinating with Republicans through his campaign manager, a close friend of David Rivera, the Republican who occupied the seat at the time. After fleeing to Nicaragua to escape authorities, Ana Alliegro, the former campaign manager was successfully extradited and subsequently pled guilty in 2014.

Rivera, who had previously been the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party, was named as a co-conspirator but he was not formally charged. The Federal Election Commission fined him $456,000 for making illegal campaign contributions to Sternad, a judgment that was upheld by a U.S. district court in March.

Spurred on by dogged reporting from the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Sunshine State prosecutors have been unraveling a large ghost candidate operation linked to Benjamin Paris, the chair of the Seminole County Republican Party. On Tuesday, Paris was charged with making a campaign contribution in the name of another person to Jestine Iannotti, one of three “independent” candidates in Florida who have been accused of illegal coordination with local Republicans.

Iannotti, who was a candidate in the 2020 race for Florida’s 9th State Senate District but did not campaign, was indicted on Tuesday for two counts of perjury, accepting excessive contributions, and accepting donations made in the name of another person. James “Eric” Foglesong, a Republican campaign consultant is facing five separate charges, including two counts of making political donations in the name of another person.

During the course of the campaign, Democratic-leaning residents of District 9 received a number of strange mailings, including one that used a stock photo of a Black woman in support of Iannotti, who is White. A mysterious group with a progressive-sounding name Floridians for Equality and Justice, was found to be sending mail to District 9 residents attacking Patricia Sigman, who was the front-runner in the Democratic primary. The group was subsequently revealed by the Orlando Sentinel to have been headed by Stephen Jones, the 24-year-old son of a Florida Republican operative named William Stafford Jones who has done extensive work for Data Targeting Incorporated, one of the top GOP campaign shops in the state.

The full scope of the Republican spending in the race has yet to be revealed and in court, Floridians for Equality and Justice, is suing to block disclosure of its donors. It almost certainly had an impact, however, because the Republican candidate, Jason Brodeur, managed to defeat Sigman by less than 8,000 votes. Iannotti received 5,787 according to state-certified totals.

But the District 9 is not the only Florida Senate district where Republican consultants and donors have been alleged to have manipulated voters illegally. Last August, Alex Rodriguez, pled guilty to receiving $45,000 from a former GOP state senator named Frank Artiles to run as an independent candidate in the District 37. The Democrat in the race, José Javier Rodriguez, had the same last name, potentially making it difficult for voters to remember which Rodriguez to choose.

Alex Rodriguez, who prosecutors said was a long-time friend of Artiles, received more than 6,300 votes. While Rodriguez did no campaign events, he was touted as a progressive alternative in mailings sent to District 37 voters. Ileana Garcia—the Republican candidate in the race, who had previously worked as the founder of Latinas for Trump and was Trump’s 2016 director of Latino outreach—won by only 32 votes. In court testimony, an acquaintance of Artiles said that he claimed credit for Garcia’s victory at an election party.

Since news of his alleged election rigging, Artiles is currently facing trial on a number of charges. He has also been indirectly linked to the District 9 race by Miami-Dade state prosecutors. Both Artiles and Foglesong worked directly for Data Targeting, which had been deputized by Florida Republicans to run all of its state senate campaigns. A modified version of the flier design with the Black model used on behalf of Iannotti was sent to Democratic voters to tout Alex Rodriguez.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Florida Stronger, a “dark money” political action committee allowed to receive anonymous donations, received $25,000 from a separate political committee run by Jason Brodeur, the District 9 Republican candidate. Both of Florida Stronger’s officers, Jose Riesco and Alejandro De Varona, performed legal work for Alex Rodriguez in the District 37 race.

Prosecutors say that Artiles also did work for Celso Alfonso, an 81-year-old man who ran as an independent candidate in Senate District 39, which includes Southern Miami and the Florida keys. Artiles has not been charged in conjunction with that race. According to prosecutors, Alfonso said he was not paid to run. The Republican candidate, Ana Maria Rodriguez, won the race by more than 28,000 votes, much more than the 3,639 that Alfonso received. Like the other “independent” candidates, Alfonso did not campaign but was promoted as a progressive alternative by Republicans.


Rapper Kanye West wears a bulletproof vest during a July 20, 2020 news conference announcing that he would run for president, an effort that was financed and organized by Republican party operatives.


It’s not currently known how large the GOP effort to put forward sham candidates in 2020 was, but the evidence from Florida and other states suggests that it is becoming an increasingly common tactic. A fourth ringer “independent” candidate, Leroy Sanchez, who ran in Florida’s House District 42 has been connected with the Senate candidate ring through a Republican lobbyist named Macy Harper. Sanchez, who is the brother of a top Florida Republican donor, received just under 7,500 votes for his non-candidacy, far greater than the 1,160 margin that enabled the GOP candidate in the race to win.

According to the New York Times, federal prosecutors have also expressed interest in Florida’s fake candidate scandal, particularly alleged discussions had by Matt Gaetz, a far-right Republican who represents state’s Panhandle region in the U.S. House of Representatives, about lending support to Brodeur via third-party candidates. Brodeur has denied having any knowledge of Iannotti’s candidacy.

Former president Donald Trump’s campaign apparatus also took part in a spoiler candidate effort to boost his ultimately failed 2020 re-election bid. The then-president’s top campaign adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was widely reported to have been in frequent personal and telephone contact with Kanye West, a mentally ill rapper who mounted a nonsensical independent bid for the White House based on his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

“Trump is the closest president we’ve had in years to allowing God to still be part of the conversation,” West said in an interview with Forbes. He later told the publication that he was “walking for president“ and implied that his candidacy was designed to damage Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden rather than succeed. Republican activists and officials attempted to get West onto the ballot in 17 different states and volunteered to represent him in the Electoral College.

Minnesota Republicans also tried the fake candidate tactic in 2020, according to Adam Weeks, a man who ran on the Legal Marijuana Now Party line. Shortly before he died in the September before the election, Weeks left a voicemail for a friend which said that he had been recruited to siphon away votes from Angie Craig, the Democratic candidate in the state’s 2nd U.S. House district. Despite his death, Weeks remained on the ballot and received nearly 25,000 votes. That was not enough to block Craig, but it made the race significantly closer than it would have been.

Weeks was far from the only person apparently recruited by Minnesota Republicans to run on a pro-weed candidacy. In May of last year, Kevin Ne Se Shores, a blind and disabled veteran who ran in 2020 as a candidate on the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis Party line in the state’s 7th U.S. House district, said that he had been recruited to run by Kip Christianson, an employee of the Republican National Committee at the time. Shores said that Christianson paid his $300 filing fee, in addition to helping him get into the pot party’s primary election.

One of the pro-pot candidates, Tyler Becvar, who ran on the Legal Marijuana Now Party line in Minnesota’s Senate District 27, could have made the difference for Republicans in his race. That seems to have been the intent since Becvar was reported to have endorsed Gene Dornink, the Republican he ostensibly opposed. According to state records, Becvar received 2,699 votes, more than Dornik’s 1,818 margin of victory.

Earlier this month, Oliver Steinberg, who founded the Legal Marijuana Now party in 1986, said that he believed right-wing activists had taken advantage of party’s ballot access in eight separate races and that he would file election complaints against Republicans if he saw them repeat the practice in 2022.

In Virginia, a shadowy non-profit organization called “Our First Principles Fund” spent over $60,000 on mail advertisements attacking then-Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and promoting Princess Blanding, a minor party candidate who was running as a further-left alternative. The treasurer of the group, Thomas Datwyler, is a political consultant who has also headed political committees supportive of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).

Events on the ground in Minnesota, Florida, Virginia, and elsewhere are showing that far-right politicians, unable and unwilling to serve the majority of the people in their areas, are resorting to flagrant manipulation to carry out a minoritarian power strategy. This is fundamentally unhealthy to the republic.

Neither major party is entitled to anyone’s vote of course, and many people who vote for minor party candidates are not necessarily interested in backing the Democrat or the Republican in the race. These protest votes can be a useful expression of disgust against exclusionary politics. But in light of Republicans’ increasing reliance on fake candidates and their long history of trying to manipulate Black Americans and other progressive voters, electoral reforms are necessary.

Currently, most states do not allow parties to control who is allowed to run for office under their banners. At the very least, candidates should be required to present themselves for questioning by the parties they seek to represent.

Other reforms that could be useful to put a stop to these manipulations include the implementation of “ranked choice” voting laws which allow citizens to register their displeasure with candidates from the bipartisan duopoly while also allowing their secondary preferences to be respected as well.

Law enforcement officials across the country must step up as well to immediately prosecute election fraud to the fullest extent possible. Following Donald Trump’s cascade of lies about his 2020 election loss, Republicans have been claiming that they’re concerned about “election integrity.” Democrats must make them live by those words.