Question 1): The Board of State Canvassers (BSC) deadlocked last Thursday on the question of whether Republican gubernatorial candidates James CRAIG and Perry JOHNSON are eligible for the August 2 GOP primary ballot. Why? Because they didn’t turn in enough valid signatures, according to the state Bureau of Elections. The pair appeared to be victims of fraud committed by their signature gatherers, and although nobody contends the candidates themselves were aware of the malfeasance it’s obvious Johnson and Craig failed to monitor their campaigns’ petition-gathering efforts before they filed to run for the state’s highest office. The same goes for three other Republican gubernatorial hopefuls: Michael MARKEY, Donna BRANDENBURG, and Michael BROWN, so if all this holds up the 10-candidate GOP field has been cut in half. Four Congressional candidates and nine judicial candidates were also kicked off the ballot. Is this likely to stand, and what impact are these developments likely to have on Michigan’s 2022 gubernatorial race overall?
Answer 1): There are a number of issues here, and this story is far from over:
First, let’s review the facts. The Bureau of Elections determined that at least 36 petition circulators submitted a minimum of 68,000 fraudulent signatures across at least 10 nominating petitions — not all of them petitions for governor and not all of them submitted by Republicans. Those whose petitions were deemed insufficient because of fraudulent signatures included a Democratic Congressional candidate and nine judicial candidates, who appear on the nonpartisan section of the ballot. The head of the elections division, Jonathan Brater, claimed the bureau found signatures written in identical handwriting and many other indicators of fraud, including a “round robin” process in which circulators pass around petitions for multiple candidates and take turns signing to make the petitions look genuine. Officials also found many dead voters and others who no longer lived at the addresses where they were listed. Brater — who was appointed by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and who himself is the son of a former Democratic state senator — claimed officials “did not have time” to check every signature against the Qualified Voter File, and they were not required to do so, given the clear patterns of fraud demonstrated by certain circulators. Brater maintained his staff did check more than 1,000 of the suspect signatures against the Qualified Voter File, and found not a single one that matched.
Second, In a completely unrelated (but pertinent) development, Brater’s Department of State acknowledged it may “not always be able to meet statutory deadlines” when making certain documents in an investigation publicly available. In a letter brushing off a complaint involving how much time the bureau had taken to deal with the Michigan Campaign Finance law (MFCA), Chief of Staff Melissa J. SMILEY wrote that the department’s binding statutory obligation is “to complete all investigations by reaching the correct disposition” under the MFCA. “The practical reality is that sometimes the department must still make decisions as to how it prioritizes workloads based on its staffing capacity and resources,” she noted. “Consistent with this, the department makes a good-faith effort to meet all statutory deadlines when it can, but when following the deadline would prevent the department from fairly and properly conducting investigations, the department may take action outside of the statute.” To paraphrase Smiley’s contention, “If we feel we don’t have time to do statutorily-mandated work — like validating signatures on petitions — we’ll just ignore it or throw the petitions and candidates out.”
Third, the two Democratic BSC members voted against allowing the the “Fraudulent Five” on the ballot. The two Republicans (Tony Daunt and Norm Shinkle) decried the circulators’ fraud (which the GOP members did not dispute) and called them “criminals.” Nevertheless, they said the candidates should be approved for the ballot, thus the 2-2 deadlock, sending the matter to the courts. How could Shinkle and Daunt justify giving the candidates a pass despite their campaigns’ transgressions? On the grounds that Daunt and Shinkle did not believe the Bureau had thoroughly completed its task, mandated by law, of scrutinizing enough signatures to determine whether they were all in fact invalid.
Fourth, Smiley’s argument — and the Republican BSC members’ rationale for their vote — is precisely why lawyers for the Michigan Republican Party and some of the candidates argued that state elections officials made a Smiley-like mistake when they threw out all signatures collected by circulators they determined had committed forgery. Instead, no signature should have been thrown out as fake simply because Elections Bureaus officials “didn’t have time” to do the job they are charged with doing. They should have compared the signatures individually with the signatures the state has on file in the Qualified Voter File, they argued.
Fifth, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey have already appealed to the state Court of Appeals, and Craig to the Court of Claims. About Donna “Goat Rodeo” Brandenburg we can’t be sure. Brown announced that, based on the alleged fraud uncovered, he’s ending his campaign, so the field is already down to nine.
Sixth, lawyers and commentators affiliated with the Michigan Democratic Party were quick to jump on the petition fraud embarrassment to heap still more ridicule on the Republican gubernatorial candidates. Adrian HEMOND, CEO of Grassroots Midwest, claims Gov. Gretchen WHITMER was the big winner from the petition fiasco. “This GOP race went from ‘troubled’ to ‘clown college’ faster than the former president could tweet. RIP GOP statewide hopes, ” Hemond said in MIRS newsletter last week. Former Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who filed the original complaints against the GOP petitions, predictably supported Brater and the Bureau by asserting that, once the election bureaucrats found evidence of fraudulent petitions, the Bureau was within its rights not to consider any legitimate petitions that may have been filed at all. Former Gov. James Blanchard opined that the Republican candidates appeared to be “from Jupiter.” Indeed, it appears the Democratic lawyers, politicians, commentators, and the Bureau as well as most of the news media are all on the same page, with every decision and statement orchestrated from beginning to end for maximum public effect.
Seventh, these Democratic operatives may get hit with a “Be Careful What You Wish For” blowback. If the “Fraudulent Five” candidates are in fact denied ballot access by the courts (which will make the final call, possibly by the end of this week and almost certainly by June 18) it would be manna from heaven for Garrett SOLDANO, Kevin RINKE and especially Tudor Dixon, who just got a major endorsement from the DeVos family and much needed financial support. At the same time, if both the leading candidate (Craig) and biggest self-funder (Johnson) are out of the race, it may finally get former President Donald TRUMP into the act, for better or worse. Dixon may immediately rise to the top of the establishment support list as a result of the DeVoses’ endorsement. Many have believed from the beginning that, if Dixon could win the nomination, she would be the strongest Republican nominee against beleaguered incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The question will be whether Michigan’s conservative king/queen makers (the DeVoses) still have influence over what has become a Trump-era base. Their fading influence, combined with a still historically large field, might give Soldano a chance to sneak through the primary. Meanwhile, Rinke will probably up his TV ad buy.
Finally, the ultimate question of who gets on the ballot will be decided by the courts, first the appellate bench and then, depending on how they rule, the Supreme Court, which may get another hot potato to go along with their verdict on the Whitmer-inspired demand that the state’s 1931 abortion law be overturned. There is a good chance one of these courts will demand that the Bureau of Elections simply do its job and start verifying signatures, instead of guessing. That may mean delays will happen past June 18, and if so we could even see the Aug. 2 primary postponed. It happened back in 1982. Stay tuned.