Board: Michigan GOP governor hopefuls ineligible for ballot

Two of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination for Michigan governor have been found ineligible for the August primary
Lansing Capitol in Springtime 5-2-15. Photo credit: Tracy Maher.
Lansing Capitol in Springtime 5-2-15. Photo credit: Tracy Maher.(WILX)
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 8:48 AM EDT
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Two of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination for Michigan governor were found ineligible Thursday for the August primary, prompting a likely court challenge and reshaping the race to take on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the battleground state this fall.

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has led in most primary polls, and businessman Perry Johnson, along with three other lesser-known candidates, did not qualify for the ballot. The bipartisan Board of State Canvassers, voted Thursday that they be disqualified, following a recommendation from the state elections bureau, which said Monday it found thousands of forged or fraudulent signatures on petitions the candidates submitted.

The board split evenly on partisan lines, with two Democrats saying they should not make the ballot and two Republicans saying they should. Candidates needed three votes in support to make the ballot.

Democrats challenged the GOP candidates’ petitions, alleging mass forgery and other issues. Another Republican candidate, Tudor Dixon, had also contested Craig’s voter signatures as fake. The bureau, which is part of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's department, said it discovered the fraud in its own review and didn't process the challenges filed by the Michigan Democratic Party and Dixon.

Johnson has already spent millions of his personal fortune on the contest. Campaign consultant John Yob said earlier this week that the campaign would take the issue to court if necessary. Craig's campaign also could ask the court to intervene.

Bureau staff also determined that three other lesser-known GOP candidates — Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey — did not turn in enough valid signatures. Brown withdrew from the race on Tuesday.

The Republicans who remain on the ballot are Dixon, who recently was endorsed by the family of former Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, real estate agent Ryan Kelley, businessman Kevin Rinke, pastor Ralph Rebandt and chiropractor Garrett Soldano.

Addressing the board on Thursday, an attorney for Craig said he has signed affidavits from 15 registered voters whose signatures were determined to be forged, but who say they did sign the candidate's petition. Lawyer George Lewis also said the campaign acknowledges it appears there was fraud by the people who gathered signatures, but said Craig himself is a victim.

He asked that Craig's name appear on the primary ballot and voters be allowed to decide.

Brandenburg, the first to address the board, questioned why candidates weren’t notified when state staff noticed the problems weeks ago, and called the process “an arbitrary goat rodeo.”

Republican board member Tony Daunt said prior to testimony that he rejects any candidate's claims that state staff acted for partisan reasons, as some have alleged. But he said before voting Thursday that he couldn't support kicking candidates off the ballot because the bureau staff didn't have the resources to check every signature, instead reviewing a sample from the petitions.

During testimony from Craig's lawyer, Democratic board member Mary Ellen Gurewitz pushed back on the description of him as a victim. She described his petitions as “obviously fraudulent" and said the law puts the burden on the candidate to submit valid signatures. Gurewitz also asked what the campaign did to check the validity of the signatures before turning them in. Lewis said he wasn't able to provide an answer.

Candidates for governor were required to submit valid signatures from 15,000 registered voters to make the ballot. In a report released late Monday, bureau staff said multiple petition sheets for various candidates "displayed suspicious patterns indicative of fraud.” Some of the petitions for Craig's campaign, for example, had signatures that all appeared to be written in the same handwriting.

Staff said that while it's typical for petitions to include scattered instances of dubious signatures, “the Bureau is unaware of another election cycle" with such a “substantial volume” of fraudulent signatures involving multiple candidates. They identified 36 petition circulators — or people who gather signatures and are often paid per signature — who submitted petition sheets made up entirely of invalid signatures. They gathered signatures for 10 candidates, including some seeking judgeships, the bureau reported.

The bureau said Craig submitted 10,192 valid signatures — well short of the 15,000 needed. It tossed 11,113 signatures, including 9,879 that were allegedly fraudulently collected by 18 paid circulators.

Staff said Johnson turned in 13,800 valid signatures. They threw out 9,393, including 6,983 that they said are fraudulent and were gathered by many of the same people who also forged signatures that Craig submitted.

The bureau said it doesn’t believe specific campaigns or candidates were aware of what “fraudulent-petition circulators” were doing. Staff wrote that the bureau was working to refer the fraud to law enforcement for criminal investigation.