Lansing — Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan native and Shelby Township resident, is fighting back against questions over whether he is eligible to run for governor here because he registered to vote in New York while attending graduate school and working as a professor.
El-Sayed was registered to vote in New York from October 2012 through at least March 2015, according to records published Monday by Bridge Magazine. The Michigan Constitution requires any candidate for governor to be a registered elector in the state at least four years prior to the election. For the 2018 election, candidates must have been registered here by at least Nov. 6, 2014.
But in a video message filmed outside Central Methodist Church in Detroit on Tuesday and shared with supporters, El-Sayed compared the eligibility questions to “birther” attacks against former President Barack Obama.
He also described his failed attempt to vote at the church polling place during the 2016 presidential primary, offering new details after state records revealed he was registered to vote in Ann Arbor at the time.
“I was born and raised in Michigan. I love this place,” El-Sayed said, recounting how his Egyptian immigrant father met and married a woman from Gratiot County. “And they chose to raise us here. I wanted to give back here. After going to grad school I got back here as fast as I could, got to serve this great city, and I’m proud of the work we did.”
His campaign says El-Sayed maintained “continuous residence” in Michigan by keeping an apartment here even when he worked out of state, and Secretary of State records show El-Sayed has been “continuously registered to vote in Michigan since 2003,” said spokesman Fred Woodhams.
But El-Sayed’s Michigan registration was on a “cancellation countdown status” between 2013 and 2016 because he had surrendered his driver’s license to get one in New York, Woodhams said. El-Sayed, a doctor, earned a medical degree at Columbia University and worked there as an assistant professor.
If El-Sayed had tried to vote in Michigan during that period – which he did not – he would have had to verify his address and affirm he was eligible to vote here, Woodhams said. His registration would have been been canceled after the November 2016 election had he not updated his registration and voted in Michigan.
“Under federal law, the department may not cancel a voter’s registration due to the person moving away until two federal election cycles have passed,” Woodhams said.
Campaign spokesman Adam Joseph quickly dismissed questions over El-Sayed’s eligibility, as first reported by Bridge.
“Abdul is 100% eligible to be governor of Michigan,” Joseph said in a statement. “He has been continuously registered to vote in Michigan since he was 18 years old, and he has maintained continuous residence in Michigan since his childhood. He is a son of Michigan – born and raised in this state, went to public schools in this state, and had a daughter in this state.”
El-Sayed is running an aggressive campaign as he prepares to compete in the Democratic primary against former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs.
He will have to file an affidavit of identity by April 24 to qualify for the primary ballot. The affidavit will require him to say how long he has been a resident of Michigan and attest that he is registered and qualified to vote here. It will not require him to attest that he meets constitutional qualifications to be governor, according to a blank form reviewed by The Detroit News.
His eligibly may only become an issue if an opponent files a formal complaint with the state, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, said Democratic strategist and pollster Ed Sarpolous.
Whitmer, who is leading early polls of the Democratic race, has little incentive to challenge El-Sayed’s eligibility because it would alienate his supporters that she may need in the general election, Sarpolous said. Republicans have no incentive to challenge his eligibility unless he wins the Democratic primary he said.
“The bottom line is a court’s going to end up ruling on this,” Sarpolous predicted.
El-Sayed returned to Michigan full-time after Mayor Mike Duggan tapped him to serve as Detroit health department director in August 2015.
A self-described progressive who has been courting voters who backed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, El-Sayed did not vote in Michigan’s March 8, 2016, Democratic primary that saw Sanders narrowly top eventual party nominee Hillary Clinton.
In an April interview, The Detroit News asked El-Sayed for whom he voted. He responded by saying he “was a Bernie guy,” but his campaign later clarified that “crowding at the polling place prevented him from voting for Bernie, but he was an avid supporter.”
El-Sayed told a similar story that month on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record,” saying he tried to vote “several times” that day but was met by long lines he could not wait in on a work day.
But state voter registration records show El-Sayed was not registered to vote in Detroit at the time of the March 8 primary.
He had been registered to vote in Ann Arbor since 2008 but changed his registration to Detroit on March 29, 2016, according to the state. He reapplied for a Michigan driver’s license at that time and voted in the November general election.
In his Tuesday video message, El-Sayed re-iterated that he twice tried to vote in the primary but was unable to due to long lines and a busy work schedule.
“Turns out had I actually made it to the front of those lines and waited that one hour and a half, I probably would have been given a provisional ballot because I was registered to vote in Ann Arbor and not here, or I would have been sent to Ann Arbor.”
Voter participation records dating back to 2009 show El-Sayed voted in Michigan twice: The 2016 presidential election and the August 2017 primary election.
It’s “not uncommon” to find people registered to vote in more than one state, Woodhams said. “I am not immediately aware of a state law requiring people to notify a state that they left that they are registered elsewhere.”