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U.S. House candidate sues over petition law amid COVID-19 pandemic

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

A Republican U.S. House candidate says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order makes it "impossible" to gather the petition signatures needed to get on the ballot, so he's filed a lawsuit to challenge the requirement.

Eric Esshaki, an attorney from Birmingham, hopes to face U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, in the general election. First, he has to gather at least 1,000 valid petition signatures by 4 p.m. April 21 for his name to appear on the primary ballot.

Esshaki filed a lawsuit in Detroit federal court Tuesday against Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Elections Director Jonathan Brater, contesting the signature requirement.

Eric Esshaki, Republican candidate for the U.S. House

"Defendants' refusal to extend the deadline places candidates in the position of either having to break the law and cause electors to break the law under threat of criminal prosecution or forgo running for public office altogether," his lawsuit says, referring to the week-old, stay-at-home order.

The order sets a potential misdemeanor penalty for violators.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency limits on public gatherings and nonessential travel paired with the state's ballot requirements infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of speech, freedom of association and due process, Esshaki argues in his lawsuit.

Whitmer issued her order, which generally requires people to stay inside their homes to limit the spread of the coronavirus, on March 23.

As it stands, Esshaki said, the government is telling people they have to gather a certain number of signatures to run for office while stripping away candidates' ability to collect the needed signatures.

Usually, candidates' campaigns go door to door or attend public gatherings to get the signatures they need. Those types of activities would seem to violate the stay-at-home order.

To resolve the matter, the court could order that it's unconstitutional to enforce the signature requirement, Esshaki said. The state could also extend the deadline for signatures or lower the threshold, he said.

Whitmer's stay-at-home order is in place until April 13. However, Michigan's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said Monday the state's COVID-19 cases may not peak for "several weeks."

A "special announcement" on the Secretary of State's website says the office is evaluating deadlines and signature requirements for candidates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A notice on the Michigan Secretary of State's website currently says the signature requirement remains in place, but "evaluation" of the deadlines and signature requirements are "ongoing."

Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said the secretary of state's office hadn't receive the lawsuit and didn't have a comment.

Esshaki is one of a handful of GOP candidates hoping to challenge Stevens in November. The others include former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Carmelita Greco and Whittney Williams.

While major party U.S. House candidates must collect 1,000 signatures, major party candidates for the Michigan House must submit 200 valid petition signatures or a filing fee of $100 by 4 p.m. April 21 to make the primary ballot.

Some candidates are working within the requirements. U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, is mailing petitions to supporters to sign and then mail back.

"As our campaign is cautious and mindful of the public health crisis currently ongoing, your assistance will allow us to collect safely and effectively," an email from Upton's campaign said Tuesday.

cmauger@detroitnews.com