The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mich. GOP candidates lose bids to appear on ballot after fraudulent petitions

James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, had been considered a leading contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Michigan. (Paul Sancya/AP)
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Michigan courts have rejected legal challenges from three of five Republican candidates for Michigan governor who were disqualified last month from the ballot because of invalid signatures on their nominating petitions, upending the race with two months to go until the Aug. 2 primary.

The Michigan Court of Appeals on Wednesday unanimously rejected a legal challenge from businessman Perry Johnson and later that night denied a motion to intervene from businessman Michael Markey. On Thursday, the Michigan Court of Claims also denied an appeal from former Detroit police chief James Craig, who had previously been considered a leading contender for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

All three have pledged to take their cases to the Michigan Supreme Court.

“The voters should be deciding who their candidates are, not an unelected board of government bureaucrats,” Craig said in a statement Thursday. “Rest assured, we will be appealing this questionable decision to a higher court. Our fight is not over.”

In a May 23 report, the Michigan elections bureau found that five GOP candidates for the gubernatorial nomination were ineligible to appear on the primary ballot because they had submitted thousands of invalid signatures on their nominating petitions. State investigators identified 36 people who circulated petitions for their campaigns “who submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures,” the bureau said.

Democrats criticized the findings as “proof … of a massive forgery scheme,” while the campaigns for Johnson and Craig cast themselves as victims of signature gatherers who had circulated their petitions fraudulently without their knowledge.

For five of the 10 GOP candidates, the fraudulent petition sheets meant they fell below the threshold of 15,000 valid signatures required to appear on the ballot. Those deemed ineligible included Johnson, Craig, Markey, Donna Brandenburg and Michael Brown, who immediately withdrew from the governor’s race.

Last Thursday, the Board of State Canvassers, composed of two Democrats and two Republicans, met to discuss the elections bureau’s report and deadlocked on a decision, resulting in the five candidates being disqualified for the ballot.

In a Twitter post, Brandenburg said she had been “unlawfully removed” from the ballot and solicited donations for “help to fight this.” Johnson, Craig and Markey filed lawsuits with the appeals court afterward, arguing that all the signatures on their petitions needed to be scrutinized individually.

In its decision in Johnson’s case Wednesday, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the Board of State Canvassers did not have a “clear legal duty” to check every single signature against the qualified voter file.

“Likewise, because the Board had the discretion to not check each and every signature submitted by the fraudulent-petition circulators, the act Johnson is seeking to compel defendants to perform is not ministerial in nature,” the ruling stated. “Because Johnson bears the burden of demonstrating his entitlement to the requested writ … we conclude that his failure to show that the act requested is ministerial and his failure to show a clear legal duty on the part of the Board are fatal to his claim.”

Late Wednesday, the appeals court denied Markey’s motion to intervene “for the same essential reasons set forth in [Johnson’s] case.”

The disqualifications and legal challenges have upended the Republican primary race for Michigan governor two months before the August primary — and the reports of petition signature fraud come as former president Donald Trump relentlessly perpetuates the debunked, baseless claim that widespread voter fraud cost him reelection in 2020.

The five remaining GOP gubernatorial candidates include Tudor Dixon, Ryan Kelley, Ralph Rebandt, Kevin Rinke and Garrett Soldano. The family of former education secretary Betsy DeVos endorsed Dixon last week. The Republican nominee will face Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who is seeking another term.

Johnson has said he shares Trump’s “concern about election security” and attended a fundraiser with the former president for a fellow Republican at Mar-a-Lago in March. Craig has sought to distance himself more from Trump’s voter fraud claims but has said he would support a “thorough audit” of the 2020 election results and would accept Trump’s endorsement if it were offered to him.

The elections bureau said it did not have reason to believe specific candidates or campaigns were aware that their petitions were being fraudulently circulated but made its recommendations to disqualify five of them based on whether a candidate met the 15,000-signature threshold after invalid signatures were removed from their petitions.

According to the elections bureau, Craig’s campaign submitted 11,113 invalid signatures and 10,192 “facially valid” ones, while Johnson’s campaign submitted 9,393 invalid signatures and 13,800 facially valid ones, leaving both below the required threshold.

The bureau’s investigation also found that Brandenburg’s campaign submitted 11,144 invalid signatures and 6,634 facially valid ones; Brown’s campaign submitted 13,809 invalid signatures and 7,091 facially valid ones; and Markey’s campaign submitted 17,374 invalid signatures and 4,430 facially valid ones.

The elections bureau noted that this level of fraud — both in the number of invalid signatures submitted and the number of campaigns affected — was unprecedented. Some of the fraudulent petition sheets tended to show “no evidence of normal wear,” or showed evidence of having been “round-tabled,” a practice in which each person in a group takes turns signing one line of a petition in an attempt to make the signatures appear authentic, the bureau said.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.