Federal judge overturns Michigan's ballot access rule for independent candidates

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A federal judge on Sunday overturned state law governing independent candidates’ access to the ballot and lowered the signature threshold for qualification in 2020.  

Judge Victoria Roberts of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that the state’s ballot access requirements were “severely burdensome” to Christopher Graveline, other independent candidates seeking statewide office and voters who wished to vote for them.

She granted Graveline, who ran for state attorney general last year, a permanent injunction that lowers the signature threshold for future independent candidates seeking state office in Michigan.

Christopher Graveline

The set of rules governing the number of signatures, where they’re gathered and when they are submitted is unconstitutional, Roberts said in her Sunday opinion.

Until the Legislature draws up new rules, she said, an independent candidate for statewide office can qualify with just 12,000 signatures instead of 30,000.

“That no independent candidate for statewide office has ever satisfied Michigan’s current statutory scheme to qualify for the ballot demonstrates ‘the regulations impose a severe burden that has impeded ballot access,’” wrote Roberts, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton.

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office said it was reviewing the decision with its client, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Benson's office declined comment.

Graveline argued last year that Michigan law requiring a nonpartisan candidate to gather 30,000 signatures from throughout the state within a 180-day period at least 110 days before the general election was one of the strictest in the country and was “an absolute bar” excluding independents from statewide office.

The rules have been in place since 1988 and, in that time, no independent candidate for statewide office has made it to the ballot.  At least 30 have tried since 1997.

Graveline, a former federal prosecutor who now heads the Detroit Police Department’s professional standards section, was allowed on the ballot — despite gathering only 14,157 signatures — after Roberts granted him a preliminary injunction in August 2018. She called the state's ballot requirement for independent candidates “completely arbitrary” in last year’s ruling.

With 1.7% of the vote, Graveline lost the 2018 election to Nessel, a Democrat who who took 49%. Republican Tom Leonard took 46.3% and Libertarian Lisa Lane Gioia took 2.1%.

Roberts' August 2018 assessment of the requirements for independents was upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2018. On Sunday, Roberts noted that nonpartisan candidates play “an important role” in the electoral process.

Because they “are more responsive to emerging issues and less likely to wield long term or widespread governmental control, ‘independent candidacies must be accorded even more protection than third party candidacies,’” Roberts wrote.

GOP, Democratic and Libertarian candidates for attorney general are nominated at party conventions at least 60 days before the general election and are not required to obtain signatures for their candidacies.

Since independent candidates have to submit their signatures 110 days before the general election, the candidate must make a decision to enter before knowing the nominees of the major parties.

Graveline delayed the start of collecting signatures until he had a better idea of who the major party candidates would be and until he could resign his federal position to comply with the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from running for office, according to the lawsuit.

The shortened time period in which to collect signatures and the deadline by which to submit those signatures meant that Graveline collected less than half of the required signatures.