Two of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination for Michigan governor say they will ask the courts to intervene after they were found ineligible Thursday for the August primary, reshaping the race to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the battleground state this fall.
Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has led in most primary polls, and businessman Perry Johnson, along with three other lesser-known candidates, did not qualify for the ballot. The state elections bureau recommended they be disqualified, saying it found thousands of fraudulent signatures on petitions submitted by the candidates. The vote by the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers was 2-2, with two Democrats supporting the recommendation and two Republicans saying the candidates should get on the ballot.
A tie vote means the candidates lost.
Craig criticized the board's partisan decision as “a travesty” and said the bureau should have done a line-by-line verification of signatures he submitted, rather than rejecting entire pages based on its findings of fraud. He said the campaign will file an “immediate appeal.”
"We are confident that when the law is justly applied, our campaign will be on the ballot this August,” Craig said.
Johnson has already spent millions of his personal fortune on the contest. Attorney Jason Torchinsky said the state's process had “fatal flaws that didn't follow election law” and that he's confident Johnson will be on the ballot after the court review.
The other lesser-known GOP candidates — Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey — also were found ineligible after elections staff said they, too, didn’t turn in enough valid signatures. Brown withdrew from the race on Tuesday.
Democrats challenged the GOP candidates’ petitions, alleging mass forgery and other issues. Another Republican candidate, Tudor Dixon, had also contested Craig’s voter signatures as fake. But the bureau, which is part of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's department, said it discovered the fraud in its own review and didn't process the challenges filed by the Michigan Democratic Party and Dixon.
Candidates for governor were required to submit valid signatures from 15,000 registered voters to make the ballot. In a report released late Monday, bureau staff said multiple petition sheets for various candidates “displayed suspicious patterns indicative of fraud.” Some of the petitions for Craig’s campaign, for example, had signatures that all appeared to be written in the same handwriting.
Staff said that while it’s typical for petitions to include scattered instances of dubious signatures, “the Bureau is unaware of another election cycle” with such a “substantial volume” of fraudulent signatures involving multiple candidates. They identified 36 petition circulators — who are often paid per signature gathered — who submitted petition sheets made up entirely of invalid signatures.
The Republicans who remain on the ballot are Dixon, who recently was endorsed by the family of former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, real estate agent Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, pastor Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano.
An attorney for Craig said Thursday he has signed affidavits from 15 registered voters whose signatures were determined to be forged, but who say they did sign the candidate's petition. Lawyer George Lewis also said the campaign acknowledges it appears there was fraud by the people who gathered signatures, but said Craig himself is a victim.
Democratic board member Mary Ellen Gurewitz pushed back. She described Craig's petitions as “obviously fraudulent" and said the law puts the burden on the candidate to submit valid signatures. Gurewitz also asked what the campaign did to check the validity of the signatures. Lewis said he wasn't able to provide an answer.
Republican board member Tony Daunt said he rejects suggestions that state staff acted for partisan reasons, as some have alleged. But he said he couldn’t support kicking candidates off the ballot because the staff didn’t have the resources to check every signature.
The bureau said Craig submitted 10,192 valid signatures — well short of the 15,000 needed. It tossed 11,113 signatures, including 9,879 that were allegedly fraudulently collected by 18 paid circulators.
Staff said Johnson turned in 13,800 valid signatures. They threw out 9,393, including 6,983 that they said are fraudulent and were gathered by many of the same people who also forged signatures that Craig submitted.
The bureau said it doesn't believe specific campaigns or candidates were aware of what “fraudulent-petition circulators” were doing, and said it's working to refer the fraud to law enforcement for criminal investigation.
Republican Norman Shinkle, chairman of the Board of Canvassers, said the people who committed fraud “should go to prison” but that the courts should decide whether candidates make the ballot.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said in a statement that the candidates “should have their time in court" and that they are fighting against voter disenfranchisement.
Meanwhile, Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes called on the GOP candidates whose petitions were reviewed Thursday to withdraw from the race.
“Michiganders deserve accountable leaders, and these candidates have shown they are not capable of that,” she said.