Inman recall group challenges state's decision to throw out signatures

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Organizers who gathered nearly 14,000 signatures to recall indicted state Rep. Larry Inman are challenging the state's decision that threw out the signatures because of a missing word in the petition.

The Inman Recall Committee asked the Michigan Court of Appeals Monday morning to grant the group emergency relief so it could proceed with plans for a recall election, according to a statement from the group.

State Rep. Larry Inman talks to reporters in the Michigan House on Sept. 3, 2019.

The committee asked the court to require the state Bureau of Elections to begin validating signatures ahead of a Jan. 10 deadline to ensure the recall election would be on the March 2020 ballot.

The committee says the error was “harmless” and the invalidation of the 13,859 petition signatures “denies the citizens their constitutional right to a recall process.”

“This decision to halt the recall has profound practical consequences for recall efforts everywhere in Michigan,” the petition’s sponsor Sondra Shaw Hardy said in a statement. “Up to this point, this recall effort has been a fight for the people of the 104th to be represented in Lansing.  Now we find we must also fight for all people in Michigan to support our constitutional right to recall.” 

The committee was require to collect 12,201 signatures in 60 days and exceeded that requirement while collecting signatures between late September and later November.

But the group omitted the word “right” in its petition when describing one of the federal charges against Inman: “Attempted extortion under color of official right.”

The omission of the word “right” constituted a difference between the wording initially approved by the Board of State Canvassers this summer and the wording presented to individuals signing the petition this fall, Director of Elections Sally Williams wrote in a Friday letter to the recall group.

"While the omission of one word may seem inconsequential and the rejection of a recall petition on such grounds as excessively technical and harsh, the recall statute does not authorize the bureau to excuse differences between the reasons for recall approved by the board and those printed on the recall petitions,” Williams wrote in the letter.

The Michigan Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that a referendum petition seeking to repeal the state's emergency manager law could proceed despite a discrepancy with the font size, but a majority of justices agreed to overturn the standard of "substantial"compliance and require "actual" compliance instead.

Actual compliance is required where the law uses the word "shall," as is the case when describing the rules surrounding the reasons of recall on the petition, WIlliams said. 

In its Monday filing, the recall committee said the error occurred when the local printer retyped the original copy of the petition approved by the Board of State Canvassers because of differences between the font sizes in the approved language and what was required for the petition. 

In an initial review of the petition, organizers failed to notice the omission of “right” or the misspelling of “diminished,” according to the filing. 

The misspelled word was brought to the campaign’s attention several weeks into the campaign, but the omission of “right” wasn’t noticed until Wednesday. 

The committee argued that no one signing the petition was aware of or confused by the error. 

While the “precise text” of the petition may be different from what was approved earlier, the reasons aren’t, the group argued.

“Courts have consistently rejected a standard of meticulousness or perfection when it comes to the statement of reasons for recall, so long as the officer and public can identify the transaction and know the charges," the filing said. 

The disqualification of the petition based on a “harmless technicality” left organizers “in shock” after an effort they described as “an enormous lift for our community.”

“Human error is unavoidable,” said Katie Flynn, campaign manager for the recall effort. “The bottom line is that meaningless typos should not silence the voices of nearly 14,000 voters.”