AG: April 21 petition deadline for candidates a 'necessary cog'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Attorney General Dana Nessel's office is defending the April 21 deadline for candidates to file petitions to get on the August primary election ballots despite the COVID-19 pandemic, calling the deadline a "necessary cog in Michigan's election machinery."

The office filed its response Friday to a lawsuit by Republican U.S. House candidate Eric Esshaki of Birmingham, who argued the state's stay-at-home order had made it impossible for him to collect the required 1,000 valid signatures by the deadline to get on the ballot.

Esshaki, who hopes to challenge U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, sued Gov. Gretchen 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 latest stay-at-home order that is in place until at least April 30.

In the state's response, Heather Meingast, an assistant attorney general, argued that "under these circumstances," the burden Esshaki faces to get on the ballot is not overly severe.

Meingast added that 24 other congressional candidates — including three in the district where Esshaki wants to run — have already filed their petitions and other candidates are using new strategies to gather signatures. The three who have filed in the 11th District are Stevens and Republican candidates Frank Acosta and Whittney Williams.

"All of these candidates have, at least on the face of their filings, met their burden to show the requisite modicum of support for achieving ballot access," Meingast argued. "Plaintiff’s failure to do so could just as well be the result of a lack of popular support than social-distancing impediments.

"In that case, granting plaintiff the relief he seeks acts as a windfall and not equity."

The state's response came after Esshaki, a lawyer, revealed Friday morning that officials had offered to extend the petition deadline for him to May 5 to resolve the suit. But he argued that the overall April 21 deadline amid the stay-at-home order could help protect Democratic incumbents.

"This is how worried Gov. Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are about my lawsuit," he wrote in a press release. "They sent an offer to create a special and likely unconstitutional loophole for me, in return for allowing their unconstitutional policy to remain unchallenged."

Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said Esshaki's comment was "inaccurate, unfortunate and in fact violates federal rules of confidentiality."

Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Thursday morning in Lansing.

"As he knows, he was offered a form of relief he specifically sought in his lawsuit," she said. "Instead, he has chosen to turn down that relief and is using the current state of emergency as a publicity opportunity."

Esshaki denied in a statement Saturday that he had violated rules of confidentiality. He countered that the Attorney General's Office was inventing "facts to bully their opponent into silence."

"This raises the question as to why they don't want the public to know what they are doing behind closed doors," he added.

With 11 days remaining until the April 21 deadline, state officials haven't said yet whether they'll change the ballot requirements in response to the spread of COVID-19.

"We're having an internal conversation on that," Whitmer said during a Thursday press conference, adding that officials will be able to share more in the "coming days."