Candidates must 'wait and see' on Michigan's ballot decisions
Some Michigan candidates' campaigns hung in the balance Thursday as a Detroit federal judge seemed to prod state officials to further lower requirements for making the ballot during a pandemic.
In a hearing, U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg said lowering petition signature thresholds for making primary ballots to 50% what they normally were is a better solution than state officials' proposal of lowering them to 70%.
"That’s my view. I said that in my order. I am saying that again now," Berg said at one point Thursday of the 50% idea. "The reality is we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens and where we go from there."
But the next decision appears to be up to the Michigan Department of State, which enforces election laws. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and other election officials will have to outline what the thresholds will be under a Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling.
Berg decided last month that the combination of normal signature requirements and Michigan's stay-at-home order aimed at combating COVID-19 violated people's constitutional rights. He ordered the state to lower the signature requirements by 50% and extend the deadline for submitting them from April 21 to 5 p.m. Friday.
However, a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled this week that Berg couldn't set the new requirements himself. That would have to be done by the state, but Berg's order could serve as guidance, the court said.
In a filing, the state proposed setting the signature threshold at 70% of the normal requirements and extending the deadline to 5 p.m. Monday.
During a Thursday virtual hearing, Berg said he wants to see action taken by the state to institute "reasonable" accommodations for candidates.
He also acknowledged that initially those decisions would have be to made by the state but there's a possibility of further legal action as a result.
Bob Carr, a Republican U.S. Senate hopeful, is among the Michigan candidates whose campaigns could be impacted by the legal fight.
"It’s just really hard because people are scared," Carr said of his campaign's efforts to gather needed petition signatures to make the primary ballot. "They’re offended. It’s getting more divided. There are the face mask people and the non-face mask people."
Carr hopes to join the Republican primary against Farmington Hills businessman John James, who has the backing of President Donald Trump and is considered the heavy favorite to be the Republican nominee.
Under the 50% threshold, Carr's campaign would need 7,500 valid signatures. Under the 70% threshold, it would need 10,500 signatures.
The Mackinac Island hauling business owner has already turned in 7,700 signatures, according to state records. Carr said his campaign has continued collecting signatures but he doubts he could get to 10,500 by Monday.
"This is during the COVID-19 crisis," Carr said. "The signatures just aren’t out there."
But he also argued that he turned in his 7,700 signatures when officials believed the threshold was 50%. Carr said his filings should be sufficient under the understanding at the time.
One of Carr's petition gatherers told him that people "just run" when approached for a signature, Carr said. He shared a text message from a gatherer.
"Bob, this not working!" the person texted. "I have not gotten one person to sign the petition since I got here. The people that are out and about, and that is not a lot, run from me or ignore me."
James has already turned in 23,689 signatures, well above the 15,000 originally required.
Michigan Attorney General Dan Nessel's office has argued in court that changing the thresholds would give an advantage to candidates who had collected fewer signatures than opponents who met the requirements of the law.
"In that case, granting plaintiff the relief he seeks acts as a windfall and not equity," the office wrote in one court filing.
But some candidates disagree, saying they were always operating under the idea they had until April 21 to get their signatures. On March 23, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her stay-at-home order, which generally required people to stay inside their residences and avoid large gatherings.
In addition to U.S. Senate candidates, U.S. House candidates and judicial candidates also have to hit signature thresholds to make primary ballots.
A lawsuit by Republican Eric Esshaki, who's running in the 11th U.S. House District, a seat held by Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, spurred the ongoing legal fight. Esshaki has now turned in 1,220 signatures, above the 1,000 signature threshold normally required.
But there are many judicial candidates who may not hit the requirements if the state goes from 50% to 70%, said Carr and Nadine Hatten, who hopes to run for a judge position in Oakland Count Circuit Court.
Hatten of Madison Heights said under the 50% requirement, she needed 2,000 valid signatures. Under the 70% requirement, she would need 2,800 signatures. That means she would need to collect 500 more signatures than she has by Monday, she said.
Asked how possible that is, Hatten responded, "Not possible at all."
Hatten was a high school teacher who took law classes at night to become a lawyer. She opened her own practice. She said she considers running for an open judicial seat this year an opportunity to fulfill a dream she's had since she was a child.
“I understand that the governor has made a decision to save lives. That’s fine. I am not disputing that. That’s not the issue," Hatten said Thursday. "The issue is we’ve been robbed of six to seven weeks of obtaining signatures."
If the state's signature threshold moves to 70% of normal requirements, continued legal action action is likely, Hatten said.