James Craig, Perry Johnson, 3 others ineligible for ballot, Bureau of Elections says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former Detroit police Chief James Craig and businessman Perry Johnson, two of the top candidates for the Republican nomination for governor, didn't submit enough valid petition signatures to make the ballot, according to findings from the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

The bureau's revelations Monday evening shook up the 2022 race to be Michigan's governor, potentially leaving Republicans without their most well-known candidate, Craig, and without their wealthiest hopeful, Johnson.

If the bureau's reviews hold, five of the 10 candidates who submitted signatures to run for governor wouldn't make the ballot. Three other GOP candidates for governor were also found to have insufficient signatures: financial adviser Michael Markey of Grand Haven, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown of Stevensville and entrepreneur Donna Brandenburg of Byron Center.

In a staff report, the bureau said it had tracked 36 petition circulators "who submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures." The bureau said it was "unaware of another election cycle in which this many circulators submitted such a substantial volume of fraudulent petition sheets consisting of invalid signatures."

"In total, the bureau estimates that these circulators submitted at least 68,000 invalid signatures submitted across 10 sets of nominating petitions," the report said. "In several instances, the number of invalid signatures submitted by these circulators was the reason a candidate had an insufficient number of valid signatures."

The bureau found that Craig's campaign had turned in 11,113 invalid signatures, including 9,879 signatures from "fraudulent petition circulators." Only 10,192 of the 21,305 signatures Craig submitted were "facially valid," leaving him short of the 15,000 signature threshold, according to the bureau.

Craig has been widely viewed as the front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November.

"(T)he Bureau did not fully process the challenge because the number of signatures removed from the total after the review of fraudulent-petition circulators were such that Mr. Craig was already far below the minimum threshold for ballot access," the bureau wrote in its report of Craig's signatures.

James Craig

As for Johnson, the bureau identified 9,393 invalid signatures and 13,800 facially valid signatures, dropping him below the 15,000 threshold and rendering "him ineligible for the ballot."

John Yob, a consultant for Johnson, said in a statement that the Bureau of Elections didn't have the right to unilaterally void every single signature obtained by the alleged forgers who victimized five campaigns. 

"We strongly believe they are refusing to count thousands of signatures from legitimate voters who signed the petitions and look forward to winning this fight before the board, and if necessary, in the courts," Yob said.

The Board of State Canvassers, a panel that features two Democrats and two Republicans, will consider the bureau's findings on Thursday during a meeting in downtown Lansing.

The board could go along with the recommendations or diverge from them. However, it would take three of four board members to go against the recommendations and put a candidate on the ballot who was found to have insufficient petitions, according to the Michigan Secretary of State's office.

Candidates could still take the matter to court and argue for their place on the ballot.

Brown’s campaign manager, David Yardley, said his team wasn't notified of any problems with its signatures until 8:09 p.m. Monday.

"When we filed over 20,000 signatures on April 12th, we were told by the Secretary of State that if we did not receive correspondence from their office, it would indicate that they would have not found any irregularities," Yardley said. "We will be doing a thorough review and making an additional statement at a later time."

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Elections denied a challenge to businesswoman and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon's signatures, saying she submitted enough signatures.

Michigan Democrats had challenged the petitions of Craig, Dixon and Johnson, who were widely considered to be among the top contenders for the GOP nomination. Candidates for governor had to submit 15,000 valid signatures from registered voters by April 19 to get their names on the August primary ballot, a key hurdle in launching a campaign for the state's top office.

Craig's campaign submitted about 21,000 petition signatures. But the Michigan 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. Michigan Strong, a political action committee supporting Dixon's bid for governor, also challenged Craig's signatures.

Working on behalf of the Craig campaign, lawyer Edward Greim said in a May 9 filing, claims the former Detroit police chief submitted thousands of fraudulent petition signatures were "troubling," but Greim said the allegations weren't enough to keep him off the ballot.

"Despite the potential efforts of a group of circulators to defraud the campaign, it is our belief that the petition remains valid," Greim wrote. "That is because most of the technical challenges fail, and a signature comparison will likely show that the circulators did not write in a sufficient number of false signatures to erase the comfortable cushion of supporters amassed by the campaign."

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."

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.

Perry Johnson

Yob called the Democratic accusations "absurd." Even if the claims were legitimate, Yob added, "they still failed to challenge enough to impact his ballot access."

On Monday, hours before the Bureau of Elections recommendations became public, Johnson, who's been running on a "quality guru" campaign theme, proposed a plan to improve the state's petition process. Firms that hire petition circulators should be licensed by the state, and the Secretary of State's office should offer a signature verification service "to more quickly root out crooks seeking to defraud candidates and their supporters," Johnson said.

Those who challenge signatures, Johnson said, should be required to cover the costs of both the state and the candidate committee or ballot committee that was forced to defend against a frivolous challenge.

The bureau's findings represented a "reset" for the Michigan GOP primary race for governor and would benefit other candidates in the race, said John Sellek, a political consultant and the leader of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

"It was a fantastic day for Garrett Soldano, Kevin Rinke and especially Tudor Dixon, who got a major endorsement and needed financial support at the same time both the leading candidate and biggest self-funder are out of the race," Sellek said.

Dixon received the endorsement of west Michigan's DeVos family on Monday.

For Dixon's signatures, the Democratic challenge focused 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.

But the Bureau of Elections described "the defect in the Dixon nominating petitions" as harmless.

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