Board of canvassers deadlocks, blocking 5 candidates for governor from ballot

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing Michigan's Board of State Canvassers deadlocked 2-2 Thursday, keeping, for now, five GOP candidates for governor who were entangled in an alleged wave of petition forgeries off the August primary ballot.

The elections board's votes mean the candidates, including former Detroit police Chief James Craig and self-funding businessman Perry Johnson, will have to take their push to get their names on the Aug. 2 ballot to court.

Michigan will now likely see a high-profile legal battle play out over the signatures in the coming weeks with absentee ballots for the primary required to be available in less than a month.

"We have an obligation to determine whether the requisite number of qualified and registered voters have signed these petitions," Democratic canvasser Mary Ellen Gurewitz said before the votes on Thursday. "What we know is for at least 30 circulators, all of the petition signatures that they have submitted are false."

The two Democratic canvassers voted to accept recommendations from the state Bureau of Elections that the candidates be blocked from the ballot because of the apparent forgeries. The two Republican canvassers went against the recommendations of state election officials, noting that the bureau hadn't individually analyzed every signature.

Chairman Norman Shinkle speaks as the Michigan State board of Canvassers meets in Lansing to hear pleas to place candidates on the official ballot.

That question of whether the bureau could determine large numbers of signatures from circulators who submitted petitions were invalid or whether each signature needed to be analyzed on its own will likely define the coming court fight.

Republican canvasser Norm Shinkle said fraudulent petition circulators should go to prison. But Shinkle said he wasn't prepared to shift the blame to candidates by blocking their ability to get on the ballot.

The other GOP canvasser, Tony Daunt, drew a connection to unproven claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election. It would have been unjust to deprive voters of their choice for a particular office based on "assumptions," but it would also be unjust to deprive them of a choice in an election "without fully investigating the claims being made," Daunt said.

"My gut tells me these are probably fraudulent, but the burden of proof is on the government to reject the rights of Michigan citizens," Daunt said. "And I cannot base these important decisions on assumptions."

But Jonathan Brater, Michigan's elections director, said the state Bureau of Elections was "confident" the thousands of signatures in question were fraudulent. And Brater said none of the campaigns had identified specific valid signatures to refute the forgery claims.

"There is nothing to suggest that there are valid signatures in there," Brater told the board.

Multiple campaigns have said they planned to challenge the board's decision in court if they were kept off the ballot.

At one point Thursday, Jason Torchinsky, a lawyer working on behalf of Johnson, suggested a suit would be filed "tomorrow." Likewise, Craig announced an "immediate appeal" was coming from his campaign.

Changing the race?

Ron Weiser, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said the GOP would "closely monitor" the situation.

"The way this bureau deviated from its historical practice is unprecedented, and I think the arguments laid out by the challengers should have their time in court," Weiser said. "This is about fighting against voter disenfranchisement and for choice at the ballot box.” 

Paul Cordes addresses The Michigan State board of Canvassers on behalf of the state Republican Party as they meet in Lansing to hear pleas to place candidates on the official ballot.

The board's decisions shake up the GOP primary race to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, potentially cutting the field from 10 to five. The panel's decision could ultimately leave on the sidelines Craig, whom many see as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and Johnson of Bloomfield Hills, who has spent millions of dollars on ads already.

On Monday night, the Bureau of Elections, citing the forgeries, found that Craig, Johnson, financial adviser Michael Markey of Grand Haven, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown of Stevensville and entrepreneur Donna Brandenburg of Byron Center didn't have the required 15,000 valid petition signatures to make the ballot.

The votes from the Board of State Canvassers were already having repercussions on Thursday, 68 days before the primary election.

The Detroit Regional Chamber announced that Craig and Johnson would not be able to participate in a June 2 debate at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference. Instead, conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores and Pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, who previously didn't poll well enough to be included, would get spots on the debate stage.

If Craig and Johnson somehow "requalify" for the ballot by 8 a.m. on June 2, the chamber "will welcome their participation," said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Examining the signatures

The discussion Thursday focused on the Bureau of Elections' strategy for determining whether the candidates had enough signatures. Brater detailed the process, saying staff had done a "comprehensive review" of the petitions from allegedly fraudulent circulators and had looked at "every single line."

"We then looked up as many signatures as we possibly could in the qualified voter file,” Brater said, referencing the state's repository of registered voter names and addresses.

Bureau of Elections staff checked about 7,000 signatures among about 68,000 from the allegedly fraudulent circulators against the qualified voter file, which contains records about voters and their signatures, Brater said.

“We did not find a single registered voter with a matching signature for any of those circulators for any candidate of the ones we looked at,” Brater said. “If we found even a small number that looked legitimate, we took them out of the fraudulent circulator category and they are not reflected in this report.”

But George Lewis, a lawyer working for Craig's campaign, took issue with the Bureau of Elections' approach. The bureau needed to look at each signature individually and check them against the signature and information kept in the state's qualified voter file.

"They cannot do random sampling, and they cannot do automatic disqualification," Lewis told the board. "That is clear from the case law."

Gov candidate Donna Brandenburg and her attorney David Hartman address the Michigan State board of Canvassers meets in Lansing to hear pleas to place candidates on the official ballot.

Paul Cordes, the Michigan Republican Party's chief of staff, opposed the Bureau of Elections' conclusions during the board's meeting. Cordes said the bureau needed to examine each individual signature on the petitions before disqualifying a candidate.

"Disqualifying two of the highest polling candidates in this primary, as well as three others who have expended significant resources in their campaigns is disenfranchising to Republican voters who ultimately should be the decision-makers," Cordes told the board.

Hours of debate

The board's meeting took place in a Michigan Senate committee meeting room inside Boji Tower, a larger venue than the canvassers usually gather in. The vote on the gubernatorial candidates' signatures came after five hours of public comment and deliberation.

At one point, Daunt questioned whether the Bureau of Elections could do more checking of the signatures against the qualified voter file before the board makes a decision.

But Brater said it would be "impractical" to check all of the invalid signatures because of the volume of them before a June 3 deadline in state law, by which Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson must certify candidates eligible to appear on August primary ballot.

In reviewing the candidates' petition signatures, which were due April 19, the bureau said it had tracked 36 petition circulators "who submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures" across its review of candidates' filings.

"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."

John Yob, Johnson's political consultant, said Monday that the bureau "does not 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.

Cordes, the Michigan Republican Party official, echoed Yob's argument on Thursday morning.

"The state has a duty to determine if each one of the signatures on a nominating petition are valid and genuine,” Cordes said. “By statute, the board shall verify the genuineness of a signature by comparing the petition signature with the digitized signatures in the qualified voter file."

But Gurewitz and Jeannette Bradshaw, the Democratic canvassers, repeatedly questioned on Thursday whether the candidates' campaigns did the work necessary to ensure the signatures they filed were valid.

"If that circulator is not doing their job, isn’t that up to you as well to make sure that you have looked at every petition before you turn those legal documents into the state?" Bradshaw asked Johnson's lawyers at one point.

Jeannette Bradshaw, a member of the Board of State Canvassers

The bureau's review found that Johnson had submitted 23,193 signatures but 9,393 of them were invalid, leaving him 1,200 signatures short of the threshold. Johnson had 6,983 signatures that were submitted by "fraudulent petition circulators," according to the bureau's report.

The bureau's staff found the signatures submitted by the "fraudulent petition circulators" were invalid, according to the Monday report.

As for Craig's campaign, the bureau found 21,305 signatures were submitted, but 11,113 of them were invalid, meaning he was 4,808 signatures under the threshold. The bureau's report said the former chief's petitions included 9,879 from "fraudulent petition circulators."

Mark Brewer, a longtime Democratic elections lawyer, said the Board of State Canvassers had the right to disqualify entire pages of signatures because the circulators who collected fraudulent petitions had lied about their activities on their paperwork.

"The patterns are undeniable, sheet after sheet of identifiable handwriting, sheets that never saw the outside of a room because they were passed around a table," Brewer said.

Brewer filed a complaint against Craig's signatures in April, saying he had never seen such evidence of forgery and fraud in a petition drive in the nearly 40 years he's been practicing law.

'Goat rodeo'

Brandenburg and Markey were the only two GOP candidates for governor to appear at Thursday's meeting. Brandenburg said the bureau's tracking of her petitions was "egregiously off."

“I find this process to be an arbitrary goat rodeo," Brandenburg said. "It’s a shame. It’s an assault against the American people on every single level."

Brown ended his campaign for governor on Tuesday after the bureau's filings were made public.

Experts have described the number of forgeries found in the petitions as unprecedented and officials from both sides of the aisle have called for criminal prosecutions.

State Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, also spoke before the Board of State Canvassers on Thursday. Maddock, whose wife Meshawn is co-chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, said COVID-19 had prevented the normal gathering of petition signatures.

The canvassers have the power to make reasonable changes to accommodate the candidates who don't have enough signatures, Maddock said.

"I think the Michigan voters deserve to have these candidates on the ballot,” Maddock said.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office referred to Attorney General Dana Nessel the suspected signature forgery operation.

Candidates disqualified at Thursday's canvassers' meeting could appeal the decision in court, but they're unlikely to succeed as state election law clearly places the onus of presenting sufficient nominating signatures on the shoulders of the candidates themselves, not those hired to help, said retired election lawyer John Pirich. 

"They have the ultimate responsibility," Pirich said. 

If the disqualifications hold, the GOP primary field would feature Dixon, real estate broker Ryan Kelley of Allendale, businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan.

Democrats also challenged Dixon's petition 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.

The bureau didn't agree with the challenge, describing "the defect in the Dixon nominating petitions" as harmless. The canvassers voted 3-1 to allow Dixon's name to appear on the ballot.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.