Michigan Democrats challenging petitions of 3 GOP candidates for governor

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Democratic Party is challenging the petition signatures of three top Republican candidates for governor with one lawyer alleging "massive criminal forgery" took place within one campaign.

Attorneys working on behalf of the Democrats turned in the challenges against former Detroit police Chief James Craig, conservative commentator and businesswoman Tudor Dixon and businessman Perry Johnson on Tuesday, before the 5 p.m. challenge deadline. Ten Republicans have filed to run for their party's nomination in the Aug. 2 primary.

Candidates for governor must submit 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters to get their names on the August primary ballot, a key hurdle in launching a campaign for the state's top office.

Gubenratorial candidate Perry Johnson arrives at the convention. GOP candidates and delegates attend the Michigan GOP State Convention on April 23, 2022 in Grand Rapids, MI. 

There was "extensive evidence of fraud and forgery throughout" the petition signatures from Craig, Dixon and Johnson, Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said in a Wednesday morning statement.

"The Bureau of Elections and the Board of Canvassers should conduct a thorough examination to ensure they possess the integrity to stand up against Michigan election law," Barnes said.

Craig's campaign submitted about 21,000 petition signatures before the April 19 deadline to make the ballot. But the Democratic Party found "obvious forgery affecting thousands of signatures to hundreds of entire sheets invalidated by defective headings and circulator certificates to signatures from dead voters," according to its challenge.

Mark Brewer, a longtime Michigan elections lawyer and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, signed the challenge to Craig's signatures. Craig's "petitions fall well short of providing the necessary 15,000 valid signatures necessary to qualify for the primary election ballot," Brewer wrote.

In his challenge, Brewer claimed eight petition circulators had "forged or permitted the forgery" of 6,933 signatures. He alleged they used a strategy of "round robining," in which multiple signature gatherers forge signatures on multiple petitions sheets to try to cover up the tactic.

"I have never seen such evidence of forgery and fraud in a petition drive in the nearly 40 years I have been practicing election law in Michigan," Brewer said during a press conference.

The Michigan Democratic Party's challenge against Craig's signatures was the second revealed this week. On Tuesday, Michigan Strong, a political action committee supporting Dixon's bid for governor, announced it was also targeting Craig's signatures.

In a statement, Craig called the Michigan Strong challenge "a last-ditch effort by our opponents to keep us off the ballot." The effort will fail, he added. 

"We have total confidence in the signatures we submitted, and we look forward to defeating Gov. Whitmer this fall," Craig said.

In a separate Democratic Party-backed challenge against Johnson's petitions, Steven Liedel, an attorney with the firm Dykema, said a "thorough canvass" of the signatures was warranted because of "extensive irregularities." Johnson of Bloomfield Hills had submitted about 22,700 signatures.

The irregularities included signatures from dead people, apparent forgeries, extensive signature errors, a high number of duplicate signatures and numerous address and jurisdictional issues, Liedel's complaint said.

Liedel identified an "apparent forgery" in the signature of Betsey Hage of Royal Oak. Hage submitted a sworn declaration, saying she hadn't actually signed Johnson's petition although a signature using her name was included.

The lawyer added that 66 people who are "verifiably" dead somehow signed Johnson's signatures. Asked if the people were dead at the time they allegedly signed, Liedel said "to the best of our abilities," his team had determined the people were deceased at the time they allegedly signed.

Democrats "were clearly scared of Perry Johnson's momentum," said John Yob, a consultant working with Johnson's campaign. 

"Even if every absurd accusation made by the Democrats was legitimate, they still failed to challenge enough to impact his ballot access," Yob added. "Perry will be on the ballot, and we look forward to seeing the results of the more statistically consequential challenges made of other candidates."

The Democratic Party is also challenging Dixon's signatures, focusing on the heading of her petitions listing 2026 as the expiration date of the term she was running for as a gubernatorial candidate.

However, Michigan election law says a governor's term ends on Jan. 1 following a gubernatorial election, which would be Jan. 1, 2027.

"While the Michigan Election Law permits deviations from requirements relating to petition form requirements in limited specific instances, no provision of the Michigan Election Law permits the inclusion of false, inaccurate, or misleading information in the heading of a petition," Liedel wrote in the Dixon challenge.

A portion of the Michigan Democratic Party's April 26, 2022, challenge to Republican Tudor Dixon's petition signatures is pictured.

In a statement, Dixon called the Democratic challenge "desperate" and "bogus."

"The other two may not have enough signatures," Dixon added of Craig and Johnson. "For us, they are claiming that valid signatures should be disqualified because the Democrat lawyers find the gubernatorial term ending in 2026 to be confusing.

"They will do anything to protect (Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer from having to face me. They know I will force her to answer for closing our schools, covering up nursing home deaths, destroying more than a third of our small businesses, letting our roads get even worse and the many other failures she has overseen."

Dixon's campaign submitted 29,735 signatures. The maximum a candidate can file is 30,000.

In 2018, the state knocked Matt Morgan, a Democratic U.S. House candidate, off the ballot because he incorrectly listed a PO Box, instead of the required street address, in his petitions' headers. The issue was similar to Dixon's, Liedel said.

The Board of State Canvassers must complete its examination of the nominating petitions filed by primary candidates by May 31, according to Department of State documents. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office must certify candidates to appear on the primary ballot by June 3.

The winner of the Republican primary will take on Whitmer, the Democratic incumbent, in the general election.

cmauger@detroitnews.com