Brevard write-in bids raise ‘ghost’ candidate, election manipulation concerns

The sudden appearance of write-in candidates in at least two key Brevard County races this week raises questions about election manipulation and the ethics of a legal loophole that critics say allows such candidates to effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of local nonparty voters.

FLORIDA TODAY has uncovered connections between those write-in candidates and their opponents: District 1 County Commissioner Rita Pritchett and write-in candidate Daniel Edwin Lopez in the race for Brevard tax collector; and District 3 County Commissioner John Tobia and write-in candidate Sandra Cottrell in the supervisor of elections race.

Pritchett and Tobia did not respond to requests for comment; Cottrell declined to talk to a reporter who came to her home Wednesday. Lopez, who did speak to FLORIDA TODAY, denied any political collusion with Pritchett in the race.

The findings add to concerns that some Brevard candidates or their operatives may once again be recruiting so-called “ghost” candidates — those with no intention of running a real campaign or even serving in the position for which they announce, often running for the sole purpose of closing primary elections or siphoning votes from a competitor.

In the former case, phony write-in opposition bids are solicited by candidates or those working on their behalf to close primaries, allowing them to maximize campaign resources by shrinking the pool of eligible voters while not compromising their partisan appeal.

It’s an obscure political maneuver that takes advantage of the laws governing Florida’s complex primary voting system. Under that system, all eligible voters can participate in partisan primary elections, regardless of party affiliation, as long as all declared candidates are from the same party and there are no write-in candidates in the race.

That was set to be the case with the August primaries for county tax collector and supervisor of elections, which had only Republicans declared for the ballot, until this week. Write-in candidates emerged in each of those races, closing the primaries to only GOP voters and shutting out over 200,000 unaffiliated, Democratic and third-party Brevard voters.

The move means most voters will see only one name for each race on the November ballot — virtually guaranteeing the countywide offices will be decided by only a slim minority of residents.

Political experts and government watchdogs say its a loophole that has been exploited by both Republicans and Democrats to manipulate elections since it was created in 2000, after an administrative clarification from the Florida Division of Elections to a 1998 state constitutional amendment that was originally meant to ensure fairness in elections.

It’s been condemned for having what critics have said is the exact opposite effect, especially when it involves ghost candidates. A 2022 report from the nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida detailed a series of criminal election fraud cases involving ghost candidate schemes across the state since 2020.

Most of those cases involved allegations of illegal campaign funding or financial reporting violations; FLORIDA TODAY has seen no evidence of that here, and the tactic is broadly legal.

Still, Integrity Florida research director Ben Wilcox wrote in the report, such schemes amount to “a political dirty trick that at the very least would be considered a cynical take on democracy.”

“To my mind, there’s a real concern that voters are being essentially disenfranchised, and they’re not able to have a voice in who their eventual representative is,” Wilcox told FLORIDA TODAY.

Sheriff candidate Brian Potters, who previously declared as a Republican candidate back in October, also filed as a write-in candidate this week, ensuring the contest would go to the November election. He explained the decision as a way to save money on the qualifying fee while also changing tack, he said, to try and make the race less political.

Serious candidates?

Whether Lopez in the tax collector race and Cottrell in the supervisor of elections race are actually ghost candidates or will run legitimate campaigns remains to be seen, but there are signs they may not be serious about winning.

Lopez, a 27-year-old Cocoa resident with no political experience, is taking on longtime incumbent Lisa Cullen, who has held the post since 2009, and Pritchett, a former Titusville city councilmember and two-term county commissioner.

Cullen has so far raised about $52,000 in the race, while Pritchett has raised about $36,000, according to campaign finance reports. Despite stiff competition, Lopez said he had no plans to fundraise and said his campaign strategy involved “some petitioning.”

“Over the years as a young man living here in Brevard County, I’ve seen different strategies for being able to get my name out there,” he said, without elaborating.

A former U.S. Marine, Lopez told FLORIDA TODAY he had an interest in running for office since he was a child. Reporters found no evidence that Lopez has ever been politically active or even voted in an election; prior to Monday, he did not appear to have ever been registered to vote.

“I’ve selflessly laid my life on the line for the past eight years being in the military. I’m not going to sit here and say I wasn’t always afforded the opportunity to vote, but we don’t want to open that can of worms, do we?” he said.

Asked why he decided to pick tax collector, an important but low-profile and highly technical office, for his first run at politics, Lopez cited his Christian faith. “Matthew was a tax collector, one of Jesus’s beloved disciples,” he said.

Lopez denies being asked to run

Lopez is connected to Pritchett through their mutual association with New Life Space Coast Church in Titusville, where Pritchett has long served as an administrator and radio host and Lopez works as a youth minister, according to his LinkedIn page.

He downplayed their association Tuesday and denied being asked to run by Pritchett or anyone in her orbit.

“My association is honestly with New Life Space Coast,” he said. “Being that I’ve been a member of this church for 27 years, I felt it in my heart that when Jesus told me that we need more Christ … in our offices, I felt a need to want to be a part of my community that much more, so they can get a direct representation of what it means to try and emulate Christ.”

“This was purely an influence in thought from the man up above,” he said.

Pritchett did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. But Cullen was stark in her assessment of Lopez’s presence in the race: “It was to close the election. Let’s call it what it is,” she said.

“I’ve lived in Brevard for 40 years. I’ve been involved in politics for almost all of those 40 years. I’ve seen what goes on,” Cullen said. “No write-in candidate gets into an election this way hoping to win, at least to my thinking.”

The development doesn’t change her campaign strategy, Cullen said. “I’m going to continue to run a strong campaign, and hope the voters will continue to support an experienced candidate,” she said.

Cottrell standoffish with reporter

In the supervisor of elections race, FLORIDA TODAY found virtually no significant background on Cottrell. The 70-year-old Melbourne resident had no apparent social media presence; as of Thursday, neither Cottrell nor Lopez had campaign websites.

When a FLORIDA TODAY reporter who knocked on her door Wednesday identified himself, Cottrell immediately became standoffish. “You have no right to come to my home. I’m calling the police,” she said, before closing the door.

Subsequent phone calls to a number for Cottrell on file with the supervisor of elections office either went straight to voicemail or were not returned.

Ducking the media is one sign that a candidate may not be serious about running for office, according to Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

“The main signs would be that they actually run an active campaign, that they have a website at a minimum. That they might show up at candidate forums. Maybe they show up to interview with the editorial board of the local paper to try to get an endorsement,” Jewett said.

“Maybe they’ve opened a campaign account. Those are the things that to me would be signs that someone is serious about running as opposed to just getting in the race to close a primary.”

Bobanic: Cottrell accompanied to office by former Tobia aide

Current supervisor of elections and incumbent Republican candidate Tim Bobanic said he believed Tobia was behind Cottrell’s entrance in the race, after he said Cottrell was accompanied to the supervisor’s office to qualify Tuesday by Ritch Workman, a former state house representative and Tobia’s former director of community affairs.

“One of my staff members recognized the man who brought her in and was helping her as Ritch Workman,” Bobanic told FLORIDA TODAY.

Workman was connected to a ghost candidate who appeared in Tobia’s 2020 primary race against Republican challenger Kathy Meehan for County Commission District 3. Austin Mark O’Brien, Workman’s stepson, closed the primary as a write-in candidate days before Democrat Sanjay Patel also entered the race.

Tobia went on to win the primary with 63.35% of the vote. O’Brien ultimately recorded no campaign contributions or expenditures. Tobia, Workman and O’Brien all denied he had been recruited to swing the race.

Tobia and Workman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“As the supervisor of elections, I represent all of Brevard’s 425,946 voters,” Bobanic said Wednesday. “About 55% of those voters were just disenfranchised by my opponent’s decision to field a last minute write-in candidate to close the primary, and exclude all registered Democrats, minor party and no-party affiliation voters.”

Brevard has a history of ghost candidates

There have been other examples of ghost candidates emerging to close races in Brevard elections. Write-in candidate Thomas Unger briefly was poised to close the 2020 Republican primary between State Rep. Randy Fine and challenger Marcie Adkins in the race for House District 53 before Democrat Phil Moore finalized his own bid for the seat.

Like O’Brien, Unger faced skepticism about his run. He recorded no campaign finance activity and, at only 18 years old, was too young to even meet the age threshold for the Florida House.

As of last month, Unger listed himself on LinkedIn as a campaign manager for Friends of Randy Fine, Fine’s political action committee.

The notion that some Brevard politicians might engage in such nakedly political ploys is far from outlandish. Former County Commissioner Curt Smith admitted that he was trying to help then-candidate Rob Feltner by finding a write-in candidate to close the District 4 County Commission race in 2022, after FLORIDA TODAY reviewed leaked text messages showing the efforts.

Feltner, who Smith had endorsed for the seat, was the only name to appear on the November ballot (and subsequently won) after ghost candidate Joseph Michael Aiello appeared in the closing days of the qualifying period.

Aiello told FLORIDA TODAY he had no plans to campaign in the race and had entered for the sole purpose of closing the primary.

“As a member of the Republican Party, I feel that only Republicans should vote for Republican candidates, especially when only Republican candidates are running,” he told FLORIDA TODAY in a written statement at the time.

Defensible political strategy?

Jewett, the political science professor, said that was valid argument for many on both sides of the aisle. Ultimately, where you fall on the ethics of ghost candidates (he preferred the term “spoiler” candidate, he said) may come down to where you stand on the debate of open vs. closed primaries, Jewett said.

“The major parties typically don’t want an open primary. They only want their party’s registered voters to make decisions about candidates,” he said. “From their point of view, if you’re going to select a candidate to represent your party, typically you would want it to be people that think like you. … You don’t want the supporters of the other major party mucking around in your primary.”

However, he noted, the way the law has been exploited leads to serious questions about representation, especially given declining turnouts in primary elections across the state. And there is a big difference between honest write-in bids and gaming the system for political gain, said Wilcox of Integrity Florida.

“It defeats the whole purpose of the (original 1998) constitutional amendment that required open primaries,” Wilcox said. “Members of the opposing party, and independent voters or no-party affiliated voters end up having no say in their representative in that district.”

“Independent voters are really the ones being disenfranchised here,” he said. “And independent voters are probably the fastest growing sector of the electorate.”

Non-party affiliated voters accounted Thursday for about 44% of the over 234,000 Brevard voters locked out of the tax collector and elections supervisor races.

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or [email protected].