Clerk tosses Conyers III from Congress ballot

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
John Conyers III had said he was confident Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett would find that he submitted enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the congressional race to replace his father, former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett decided Monday to toss John Conyers III from the ballot for the Democratic congressional primary race to replace his father, resigned U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit.

The decision came after Conyers III on Friday filed a request for reconsideration with Garrett, claiming her elections staff last week had improperly invalidated certain signatures on his nominating petitions.

Garrett, a fellow Democrat, still accepted the recommendation of her staff that she reject Conyers III for submitting less than the 1,000 valid petition signatures required to secure a spot on the Aug. 7 Democratic primary ballot.

Her decision could affect the crowded 13th District Democratic primary that includes former state Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Shanelle Jackson, Westland Mayor Bill Wild, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and state Sen. Coleman Young III. The winner of the primary takes the seat, as no Republican is running in the race.

The ballot decision is a win for state Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit, the former congressman’s great nephew whose attorney challenged Conyers III’s petition signatures and prompted the review by Garrett’s office.

The 29-year-old state lawmaker is, for now, the only Conyers on the primary ballot. He previously told The News that petition challenges help “ensure compliance with the spirit and letter of the law.”

John Conyers III said he filed an appeal of Garrett's decision Monday afternoon in Wayne County Circuit Court. 

“Everyone is in a rush to count me out,” he wrote on Facebook late Thursday. “I’m not officially off the ballot because the Conyers to Congress campaign can review each signature and challenge the clerks finding.”

If he fails in his appeals, Conyers III would have to launch a costly write-in campaign if he wants to stay in the race.

The former congressman had endorsed his 27-year-old son as he stepped down in December amid allegations of sexual harassment by former staffers. Conyers, who turned 89 last week, was the longest-serving African American in Congress.

His endorsement seemed to catch even his son by surprise and was viewed as snubbing Ian Conyers, after he leaked news of his great-uncle’s impending resignation to the New York Times, claiming the legendary legislator had encouraged him to run.

Peter Ruddell, an elections lawyer working for Ian Conyers, had contended that many signatures submitted by Conyers III were collected from non-registered voters, voters outside the district, and voters who signed the petition more than once, as well as specific technical objections.

A review by Garrett’s staff had found only 905 valid petition signatures among the 1,914 submitted by Conyers III to qualify as a candidate for a full two-year term that begins in January. The reconsideration upped the total of valid signatures to 943, but it still fell short.

Many of the signatures came from residents who are not registered to vote or who live outside the 13th District, according to the staff report. Others were deemed invalid as duplicates or because of other “miscellaneous identification issues.”

After an additional review, Garrett said, another 30 signatures were deemed valid but  still short of what is needed.

Congressional candidates need 1,000 valid signatures to qualify under state law, and those on Conyers III’s petition "are of insufficient number" to appear on the ballot, Garrett wrote in her decision.

She also decided he had an "insufficient" number of signatures among the 1,905 that Conyers III had submitted for a separate election to complete the current term vacated by Rep. Conyers. In that case, there were 894 valid signatures, more than 100 shofrt of the required 1,000.

Garrett was expected to issue her decision Friday but postponed it after Conyers III filed his reconsideration request, which included handwritten lists of the signature lines that he said should be deemed valid.

In a letter Monday to Garrett, Ruddell argued there's no basis in Michigan law for Conyers III's reconsideration request, which he called a delay tactic. He urged Garrett to dismiss it "immediately." 

Ruddell also cast doubt on Conyers III's claim that the clerk's office had previously refused to accept eight pages of petition signatures -- which he wanted to now be included. 

"It seems unusual for this unsubstantiated claim to suddenly arise three weeks after the challenges were submitted," Ruddell wrote.

Being the only Conyers on the ballot could help Ian Conyers in the highly contested primary, said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.

“But still, Ian Conyers will have to raise the necessary resources to capture any momentum that the Conyers name might bring, because at the end of the day, his name is not John Conyers Jr.,” Kinloch told The News last week after the elections staff’s report was released.

Garrett’s decision marks the second time in four years that a Conyers has been kicked off the primary ballot.

Garrett and Johnson found in 2014 that then-Rep. Conyers had an insufficient number of valid signatures.

They followed then-state law and disqualified hundreds of signatures because five people circulating the petitions were deemed not registered or had listed erroneous registration addresses.

But a federal judge ordered Conyers back on the ballot because he had a “substantial likelihood of success” in showing Michigan’s requirement for circulators to be registered voters was unconstitutional.

After The News noted the similarity to the 2014 ballot controversy, Conyers III tweeted last week: “Sure seems that way.”

Circulator addresses are not at issue in the Conyers III challenge. Wayne County Elections staff found that many voter signatures were invalid on their own.