John Conyers a write-in candidate? How is it possible?

Petition gatherers' registration may put Conyers' ballot status at risk

A petition-gathering snafu could force John Conyers to run for re-election as a write-in candidate.
A petition-gathering snafu could force John Conyers to run for re-election as a write-in candidate.

LANSING, Mich. – U.S. Congressman John Conyers has probably forgotten more politics than any of us know. He's coming up on 50 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. That is 25 campaigns, 25 successful campaigns that start out with collecting nominating petitions with 1,000 valid voter signatures that have to be vetted by election authorities.

The usual standard is to turn in two thousand signatures by the deadline, which happened to be April 22 this year, to ensure you have your one thousand.

This bar is so low you would think the Congressman could clear in his sleep. But tonight there are serious questions about whether he will. It gets confusing and it involves technical election rules that may seem trivial but it is the price of political poker. The Congressman and his staff very well know it, which may explain their radio silence today when I asked them to comment on.

Let's start out with the fact that his 13th Congressional district is the only single county district in the state. Therefore Congressman Conyers turns in his nominating petitions to Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and not the Secretary of State. As such, this story is a Detroit story, not a Lansing one.

Still, state election law plays an important part here in that in Michigan, in order to collect nominating petitions, the circulator must be registered voters themselves at the time they collect signatures. They do not need to live in the district but must have a proper voter registration.

This is the technicality at the heart of this story and I'll get to that in a minute. It is important to point out that most congressmen and congresswomen rarely participate in this process themselves. This is normally farmed out to staffers. Considerable trust is placed in the hands of these staffers whose job it is to keep their boss in office and their paychecks coming. Sometimes though, it would appear these motivations may not be enough to keep the campaign wheels turning smoothly and lawfully.

Local 4 has learned that among the circulators the Conyers campaign hired are a man and a woman named Daniel Alex Pennington and Tiara Willis Pittman. They were, as best we can determine, collecting signatures for the Conyers campaign starting back in December 2013. They also turned in their petitions by the April 22nd deadline and, we were told, they collected more than 300 signatures.

Cathy Garrett's office reported, as of the end of the nominating petition deadline, that John Conyers would be on the August 5th primary ballot having made that deadline with enough signatures. But then a canvass is completed to make certain there were enough valid signatures on the petitions. This can take a week or more.

During the Conyers canvass last night, Garrett's office went to check to see if Conyers' signatures were valid and it turned out that Pennington and Pittman's names did not show up in the State of Michigan Voter Registration Database. Then this morning after another check, their names suddenly showed up. Not only that, they showed voter registrations in the City of Detroit and that they filed their voter registration request on December 13th, 2013.

This raised a red flag. How can someone who registered to vote last December not show up in the database Monday night but show up on Tuesday morning?

That was the perplexing question we were asking all day today as we chased this improbable story. Late this afternoon Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey's office admitted to a mistake. Will Wesley of Winfrey's office and I spent nearly an hour on the phone as the investigation into how the Pennington and Pittman's names showed up with a December 2013 voter registration date.

Wesley told me that a supervisor in his office by the name of Gwen Hunter posted Pennington and Pittman's names into the voter registry using the dates they had listed on their voter registration forms. This makes would make sense except for the fact that Pennington and Pittman had showed up yesterday in the Detroit City Clerk's Office to register to vote in person. This is an entire week after the deadline to turn in completed nominating petitions.

Let's reiterate what happened here: according to the Detroit Election office, Pennington and Pittman registered to vote yesterday in person with paperwork that said they registered last December. The state law is very clear and I double and triple checked with the Secretary of State's Office in Lansing today on this point. In order for a circulator's petitions to be valid they must be circulated by a registered voter who is registered at the time they collect those signatures.

So, if Pennington and Pittman did in fact go into Winfrey's office yesterday and register to vote then they were not registered voters when they collected their signatures. Logic and the reading of the law would tell you their signatures are therefore invalid. But when I posed this question to Cathy Garrett's office today no one could give a definitive answer.

The clerks in the office repeatedly told me they are still looking into whether Conyers has enough signatures to make the ballot and whether there are enough valid signatures. I asked one of the deputy clerks whether this scenario you just read about Pennington and Pittman's signatures could lead to Conyers not making the August 5th primary ballot. She responded that she would not answer a hypothetical question. It is nothing of the sort!

When Local Four contacted Conyers opponent the Rev. Horace Sheffield about this there was an expression of shock, which prompted an immediate trip to the Wayne County Clerk's Office to challenge Pennington and Pittman's signatures. Rest assured, this case is just beginning.

Round and round and round Detroit's political wheel of fortune goes and it could possibly mean that John Conyers, who is nearing his 85th birthday, may have to expend a lot more time and energy campaigning for his seat the 26th time around than he has in decades. He could end up running as a write-in candidate.

How many valid signatures he has now will give us the answers to the many questions that arise from this bizarre situation.

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