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Board denies Craig, Johnson, others spots on Michigan ballot. Lawsuits next.

Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, James Craig, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey
The Board of State Canvassers on Thursday voted to keep five Republicans running for governor off the ballot: Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, James Craig, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey should make the August primary ballot. (Courtesy photos)

June 2: James Craig loses ballot access suit; Johnson appeals to Michigan Supreme Court
June 1: Perry Johnson loses appeal in fight to make Michigan’s GOP ballot
May 27: Perry Johnson sues to make Michigan ballot amid forgery scandal

LANSING — Republican gubernatorial hopefuls James Craig, Perry Johnson and three others were denied a spot on the August primary ballot Thursday in a series of deadlocked, party-line, votes by the Board of State Canvassers.

The split decisions followed allegations that a ring of fraudulent circulators submitted a combined 68,000 forged signatures on nominating petitions for 10 different candidates, including five GOP candidates for governor.

The partisan split between Republicans and Democrats on the four-member board sets the stage for what may be a whirlwind week of court battles in Michigan, which could be complicated by the Memorial Day holiday weekend. 

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“We are going to have lawsuits  — that is a certainty,” Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater said Thursday, urging canvassers to decide ballot disputes so candidates can take their case to the state Court of Appeals. 

The state aims to finalize its official candidates by June 3 so election administrators can print absentee ballots by June 18, the legal deadline for mailing absentee ballots to military and overseas voters.

Craig, the former Detroit police chief, has led all polls of the GOP race. Johnson, a wealthy Bloomfield Hills businessman, has been the biggest spender. For now, they are off the ballot, along with Donna Brandenburg and Michael Markey. 

A fifth Republican gubernatorial candidate, Michigan State Police Captain Michael Brown, withdrew from the race Tuesday, saying he “cannot and will not be associated” with petition circulators accused of fraud. 

Within an hour of the decision, Craig vowed an "immediate appeal to the courts," claiming that "partisans" on the board "allowed politics to get in the way." 

Some of the ballot disputes will “probably end up at the (Michigan) Supreme Court before it's all over,” predicted Norm Shinkle, a Republican who chairs the canvassing board and voted to certify nominating petitions despite circulators who “defrauded” candidates. 

In testimony before the board, attorneys for Craig, Johnson and others did not deny evidence of what has been called a “massive forgery scheme,” but they argued the Michigan Bureau of Elections did not follow state law when it created a new process for invalidating what officials called obviously fraudulent petitions. 

Some of the signatures submitted by the 36 accused circulators may have been valid and should not have been thrown out without more review, they argued.

Craig is “as much a victim as anyone else here,” attorney George Lewis told canvassers, asking them to either put his name “back on the ballot” or direct the Bureau of Elections to conduct a more thorough review. 

Disqualifying the judicial candidates without reviewing every signature they submitted is “disenfranchising to Republican voters who ultimately should be the decision-makers” in the primary, said Michigan GOP Chief of Staff Paul Cordes.

Brater defended the bureau and its findings of fraud, which he said were referred this week to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel for a criminal investigation. 

State staff visually inspected signatures on every petition sheet submitted by every candidate, Brater said. And then, on sheets that appeared to be wholly fraudulent, staff double checked 7,000 out of the 68,000 suspected forgeries against real voter signatures stored in the Qualified Voter File.

“We did not find a single registered voter with a matching signature” on those petitions, Brater told canvassers, pointing to widespread fraud.

 "It's not a place that anybody wants to be. It's a terrible thing for our state, and it's an attack on our election system."

Still, Republican canvassers joined candidates in questioning whether the state should have double checked all 68,000 signatures linked to fraudulent circulators by comparing them to versions in the Qualified Voter File. 

"My gut tells me these are probably fraudulent,” said GOP Canvasser Tony Daunt, “but I cannot base these important decisions on assumptions." 

Daunt asked if the MIchigan Bureau of Elections could double check every signature by June 3, but Brater said that would not be “practical” given the volume. 

And it does not seem necessary because of what is evidence of an “overwhelming amount of fraud,” Brater said.

Democratic canvasser Mary Ellen Gurewitz, who voted to reject the gubernatorial nominating petitions, said it was “incredibly troubling” that candidates were asking to make the ballot even though they claimed to be victims of paid circulators who collected “demonstrably” forged signatures.

Circulators lied when they signed petitions indicating they witnessed every voter signature, and that gives the state authority to toss out the full petition sheets even if they did not double-check every signature, argued Democratic attorney Mark Brewer. 

"It seems that anyone who wants to be governor of Michigan should be able to manage (15,000 signatures) without employing dozens of forgers who submitted thousands of forgeries,” Brewer said. “Mr. Craig is not a victim here.”

Craig’s attorney presented 15 affidavits he said were from voters who did in fact sign his petitions but appeared on allegedly fraudulent circulator sheets rejected by the state. 

Attorneys for Johnson, a self-described quality guru who has already spent millions of dollars on television ads, submitted an affidavit from a Clawson voter who said she signed one of the allegedly fraudulent petitions. 

It appears the nine other signatures on that petition sheet may be valid as well, said Johnson attorney Jason Torchinsky. 

Without a line by line signature review, the state "cannot justify" keeping Johnson off the ballot, Torchinsky said. “If there are valid signatures mixed in with invalid signatures, you shouldn’t (reject) the valid signatures.”

All told, the Michigan Bureau of Elections said Johnson submitted 6,983 signatures from the fraudulent circulators. Craig’s campaign submitted 9.879 signatures from the accused circulators, according to the state.

Candidates who submitted fake signatures should be held accountable, said Democratic attorney Steven Liedel, who challenged Johnson's signatures. 

"Outsourcing the signature gathering process does not outsource their burden or personal responsibility" to conduct a lawful campaign, he said. 

Brandenbrug, a Byron Center businesswoman running for governor but kept off the ballot by canvassers on Thursday, called the process an “arbitrary goat rodeo” and an “assault against the American people on every level.”

In testimony before the board, Brandenburg suggested the Bureau of Elections did not count a second batch of signatures her campaign submitted by the April 19 filing deadline, which Brater denied. 

Her attorney argued the state “withheld” evidence of fraudulent circulators staff first became aware of in late March, denying candidates the opportunity to collect additional signatures before the legal deadline.

Michael Markey, another Republican gubernatorial hopeful kept off the ballot, told canvassers he took extra steps to ensure signature validity, personally reviewing some of the signatures he paid a circulation firm $7 apiece to collect.

His attorney accused the state of throwing “the baby out with the bathwater” by invalidating entire petition sheets, urging them to “err on the side of caution” and put Markey on the ballot so voters can decide his candidacy, not bureaucrats. 

Fraud is a “big accusation,” Markey said, suggesting the claim could hurt his professional career as a financial adviser. 

"This is why normal people do not run.”

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