Technical issue could keep Democrat off ballot

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Democrat Matt Morgan might not appear on the primary ballot in Michigan because of a technical issue with nominating petitions submitted in his bid to challenge a freshman GOP U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet.

Matt Morgan of Traverse City

Morgan was the only Democrat to file by last week’s deadline to run for Congress in the 1st District, which includes the Upper Peninsula and the northern third of the Lower Peninsula.

The seat is one targeted by Democrats ahead what they hope will be a Democratic wave in this fall’s midterm elections, although President Donald Trump won the district by 21 percentage points in 2016. It promises to give Bergman an extra advantage heading into fall.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections notified the Morgan campaign last week that it would not recommend the state Board of Canvassers certify the 1,543 petition signatures that he submitted in early March to qualify for the August primary ballot, the campaign said.

At issue was the use of the campaign's Post Office box in the heading of the nominating petitions, rather than a street address.

Candidates need to put their residential address, because putting down a post office box number would invalidate the sheet and all signatures on it, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

"From our perspective as a campaign, we followed the instructions on the form. We do not believe this should necessarily be fatal," Morgan told The Detroit News.

"If it is an error, it should not be a fatal error because it disenfranchises thousands of voters in northern Michigan and the U.P."

Morgan says he intends to pursue "all legal means necessary" should the Board of State Canvassers decline to certify his nominating petition signatures when it meets later this month.

If needed, he will wage a write-in campaign to win the Democratic primary and secure a place on the general election ballot in November, he said.

"There’s two things that really matter here: One is that I am eligible to run for this office and, two, that we collected the requisite number of signatures by voters currently registered to vote in the 32 counties of Michigan’s 1st Congressional District," Morgan said.

"Neither of those two things is being challenged. We believe on the merits of this that we should be placed on the ballot. Otherwise, this subverts the will and intentions of the voters of Michigan 1."

His attorney, former Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, said, "Even if it's a mistake -- and it's not -- this is an excessive, harsh penalty."

Woodhams said Monday the Bureau of Elections has not completed a review of petitions filed by candidates for the primary election, and that elections staff will complete their work and make a report to the Board of State Canvassers.

But a disqualification from the primary ballot would still mean spending more money in court or on a write-in campaign to make the fall ballot -- meaning less cash to attack Bergman.

Bergman consultant John Yob said: “The incompetence of the opposition will not slow down General Jack Bergman. He will work just as hard to earn the support and trust of the people of the first congressional district regardless of whether or not his opponent is capable of getting his name on the ballot.”

Another Democrat who had campaigned for the 1st District seat last year, Northern Michigan University professor Dwight Brady of Marquette, previously withdrew from the race.

Brandon Dillon, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, continues to support Morgan’s candidacy. Morgan and Bergman are retired Marine officers.

“Matt Morgan is running a strong grassroots campaign, and I am confident he has the momentum to win in November, 2018,” Dillon said in a statement.

In 2016, Bergman defeated Democrat Lon Johnson by nearly 15 percentage points to succeed Republican Rep. Dan Benishek, who retired. But the seat was previously represented by a Democrat for 18 years – Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee.

Morgan has outpaced Bergman in fundraising for the last two quarters. Cook Political Report in April revised its election rating for the seat, changing it from “solid” to “likely” Republican, noting that Bergman is trailing Morgan in cash reserves.

An Iraq veteran, Morgan retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel in 2013 after 24 years. He and his wife then returned to her native Michigan to raise their sons. He worked as an independent writer and film consultant, advising on films such as “American Sniper” and “Arrival.”

In 2016, he produced the Smithsonian documentary, “The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima,” which included the identification of a Michigan native who had been misidentified in the famous 1945 Associated Press image.

Morgan launched his campaign a year ago, focusing on issues including single-payer universal health care, Great Lakes cleanup, the economy and immigration reform.

He has endorsements from the Progressive Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, the United Auto Workers, American Federation of Teachers and Operating Engineers Local 324, as well as the backing of former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, and district resident and activist Michael Moore.

Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. initially was disqualified from the primary ballot in 2014 over petition signature issues but was restored after his campaign prevailed in federal court.