Republicans take fight to get on primary ballot to Michigan Supreme Court

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Three Republican candidates for governor who've been knocked off the ballot because of a gush of alleged petition forgeries have asked the Michigan Supreme Court to immediately hear their cases and intervene to put their names on the August primary ballot.

Businessman Perry Johnson of Bloomfield Hills filed his motion late Wednesday night to appeal a ruling from the state Court of Appeals. Early Thursday morning, another GOP candidate, Donna Brandenburg of Byron Center, asked the state's high court to order that her name be put on the ballot, according to court documents.

And Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey appealed a Court of Appeals decision Thursday afternoon to the Michigan Supreme Court, asking the high court to find the state followed "bureaucratic creativity" and not state law when reviewing his signatures for the August primary ballot.

"This is it," Johnson's attorneys wrote in their submission. "Without relief in this court, Mr. Johnson will not be on the ballot this August and every single one of the over 15,000 voters who validly signed a petition to place him on the ballot will be denied their candidate."

Johnson and Brandenburg's filings came shortly before Michigan Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher denied a challenge from former Detroit police Chief James Craig, who also was disqualified from the ballot because of alleged petition forgeries. Craig said late Thursday morning that he also will appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Johnson and Brandenburg are hoping for action from the Michigan Supreme Court by Friday, the date by which the Michigan Secretary of State's office has said it needs answers about who is on the ballot. Markey asked the Supreme Court to enjoin the state from printing ballots while high court considers his case. 

On May 23, the Michigan Bureau of Elections revealed its findings that five GOP candidates for governor hadn't submitted the required 15,000 valid petition signatures. In addition to Johnson, Brandenburg, Craig and Markey, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown was also caught in the alleged web of forgeries.

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

In its staff report, the Bureau of Elections 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."

The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked a week ago on whether the five GOP candidates should be on the ballot. The board's 2-2 votes meant the hopefuls were denied spots.

The Republican candidates have argued that the Bureau of Elections needed to analyze each individual signature that staff members invalidated. But Jonathan Brater, the state's elections director, has said he's confident in the bureau's findings, which analyzed petition sheets from a group of allegedly fraudulent petition circulators and spot-checked about 7,000 of 68,000 alleged forgeries.

A Court of Appeals three-judge panel unanimously sided with the Bureau of Elections on Wednesday, saying the agency had a "clear legal duty to investigate" the signatures but not to compare each one with the qualified vote file, which contains the signature of each registered voter in Michigan.

Johnson's lawyers argued in their appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court that it "must step in" and "iron out the wrinkle in the fabric of Michigan law created by the lower court’s published opinion."

Markey argued that, without Supreme Court intervention, "bureaucratic creativity" would "control Michigan's elections rather than law" and put voters "at the mercy of elected bureaucrats."

"Michigan needs clear guidance from this court so that everyone who decides to run for office in the future will know exactly what the rules of the game are," Markey's lawyers wrote in the Thursday filing.

Craig filed his challenge in the Court of Claims, but he would have to eventually go through the Court of Appeals, like the others.

In her Thursday opinion on Craig's Court of Claims case, Gleicher said the Court of Appeals judges had addressed "the issue at the heart" of Craig's complaint in their denial of Johnson's claims, when they ruled the state did not have a clear legal duty to check all signatures against the qualified voter file. That decision, Gleicher said, binds her court to make the same finding.

In a statement Thursday, Craig said he was "disappointed" by the decision and planned to appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court. 

"The voters should be deciding who their candidates are, not an unelected board of government bureaucrats," Craig said. "Rest assured, we will be appealing this questionable decision to a higher court." 

Brandenburg has argued that the Bureau of Elections simply didn't count about 8,000 signatures that she claims her campaign submitted in addition to an initial batch of about 19,500.

"Donna Brandenburg has suggested the Bureau of Elections merely overlooked her second submission and somehow discounted her original submission of 19,500 estimated signatures by 1,800," Brandenburg's filing said. "This failure of a duty to identify the starting number correctly is a tremendous problem for the credibility of the entire review."

For now, the alleged forgeries have cut the field of GOP candidates for governor in half from 10 to five.

The remaining five GOP gubernatorial hopefuls are conservative commentator and businesswoman Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores, pastor Ralph Rebandt of Farmington Hills, businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township, chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan and Ottawa County real estate broker Ryan Kelley.