Whitmer: Filing deadline 'critical' for keeping election on schedule

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Four days ahead of Michigan's filing deadline for candidates, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated Friday she won't use her powers to alter the requirement for making the ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference to update the public on the spread of COVID-19 on Monday, March 30, 2020.

"We know that these deadlines are critical in terms of keeping our elections on schedule," Whitmer said when asked about the issue during a press conference.

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, some major party candidates who want to make the August primary ballot have to file petitions with the state. Candidates for the U.S. House have to file 1,000 valid signatures while candidates for the U.S. Senate have to file 15,000 valid signatures.

Judicial candidates have their own petition thresholds to hit, which vary depending on what office the candidate is seeking.

Some candidates argue that Whitmer should use her executive powers to extend the signature gathering deadline or to lower the thresholds amid the stay-at-home restrictions that bar public gatherings and generally require people to remain in their homes.

Eric Esshaki, a Republican who's running for the U.S. House, filed a lawsuit against state officials, arguing that the stay-at-home order made it "impossible" for him to meet the 1,000 signature threshold.

"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 said.

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

State Attorney General Dana Nessel's Office is defending the Tuesday deadline, arguing that it is a "necessary cog in Michigan's election machinery."

The Attorney General's Office has noted that other candidates "met their burden to show the requisite modicum of support for achieving ballot access. Plaintiff’s failure to do so could just as well be the result of a lack of popular support than social-distancing impediments."

As of 6 p.m. Friday, two U.S. Senate candidates — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Republican John James — and 34 U.S. House candidates — including the 12 incumbents actively running for re-election — had filed signatures, according to state records.

Esshaki is running in the 11th District, which is represented by Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills.

Republican Whittney Williams, one of two other GOP candidates in the district who have filed signatures, has argued the deadline shouldn't be changed.

A decision by Eastern District of Michigan Judge Terrence Berg is expected in the coming days. He is an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

Whitmer noted the pending lawsuit on Friday.

“It’s really important that especially in times of crisis we protect these fundamentals that are truths of our democracy and our republic and that it’s important that we continue to have our elections, do them as well as we can and keep people safe in the process," the governor added.

At a press conference more than a week ago when asked about the issue, Whitmer said her administration officials were "having an internal conversation on that" and promised that officials would share more in the "coming days." She didn't volunteer anything about her candidate filing decision until asked by a reporter at Friday's press conference.

In response to Whitmer's statement, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted that she fully supports the "decision not to extend Michigan’s candidate filing deadline."

"The governor’s data driven leadership & focus on doing what’s best for all Michiganders has saved lives while protecting our fundamental rights," Benson said.