Complaint: Michigan group fighting voter ID ‘secretly’ bought out circulators
LANSING — A Michigan group opposing voter ID requirements paid a firm not to gather signatures for its opponents and failed to properly disclose the payments, according to a complaint obtained by Bridge Michigan.
Protect MI Vote — a group fighting Republican-led ballot measure Secure MI Vote — hired a Missouri-based consulting firm to contract with and “secretly buy out” circulators so they would not work for the conservative campaign, according to the complaint filed by professional signature gatherer Dustin Wefel.
“Protect MI Vote’s scheme to pay off circulators not to engage in the Secure MI Vote Initiative Petition is deplorable on its face and has no place in Michigan elections,” according to the complaint that was first reported by The Detroit News.
- James Craig seeks to stay in Michigan governor race, says campaign ‘defrauded’
- Fight is on to put Michigan term limit reform directly before voters
- 2022 Michigan petition drives tracker: What to know about election proposals
The complaint contends Protect MI Vote should have disclosed its payments through the consulting firm to individual circulators like Wefel, which the ballot group did not.
“Considering the potential criminal liability associated with Protect MI Vote’s failure to report the payment to Wefel, Wefel is withdrawing from and reporting this scheme to avoid any allegation that Wefel has engaged in a conspiracy … or that Wefel is ‘aiding and abetting’ the crime,” the complaint says.
Secure MI Vote spokesperson Jamie Roe said “Protect MI Vote is only protecting the right to cheat
“We have long heard rumors of Protect MI Vote’s illegal scheme, but could not prove it until Dustin Wefel bravely came forward to expose it,” Roe said in a Tuesday statement.
Chris Trebilcock, legal counsel for Protect MI Vote, told Bridge Michigan in a Wednesday statement the campaign has yet to receive a copy of the official complaint but is “confident that we are in compliance with the law.”
"Non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are not new or novel, but rather standard operating procedure,” he said. “It's confounding that Republicans are suggesting Protect MI Vote doesn't have the freedom to contract with firms that have opted to help our cause.”
Michigan Secretary of State’s office is reviewing the complaint and does not have further comment, department spokesperson Tracy Wimmer told Bridge on Wednesday.
The complaint is the latest accusation of wrongdoing by signature-gatherers. Inflation and a worker shortage has dramatically increased the price of signatures for initiatives and candidates to make the ballot, leading to accusations of forgery that could imperil the gubernatorial campaign of Republican James Craig.
Secure MI Vote is one of more than a dozen petitions vying to be on the November ballot. Among other things, it would require ID for in-person voting and absentee ballot applications, bar clerks from mailing unsolicited absentee ballot applications and bar outside funding for elections.
The group must collect at least 340,047 valid signatures by June 1 to present the issue before the Republican-led Legislature, which would likely adopt it into law. Democrats and voting rights activists have formed ballot committees, including Protect MI Vote, to defeat the effort.
Both groups receive the majority of its funding from “dark money” groups — 501(c)(4) social welfare groups not required by IRS rules to reveal their donors.
As of the end of March, the conservative Secure MI Vote had received $1.1 million — the bulk of its revenue of $1.2 million — from Michigan Guardians of Democracy, campaign reports show.
By the end of March, the liberal Protect MI Vote received $2.5 million — or 90 percent of its revenue — from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a progressive group based in Washington, D.C.
Contract does not mention Protect MI Vote
Wefel’s lawyer Troy Cumings told Bridge that Wefel did not know he was working for Protect MI Vote until earlier this year.
“This was hidden,” Cumings said. “He … had no idea that there was more going on behind the scenes.”
Wefel was hired by Missouri firm Groundgame Political Solutions in November at $50,000 to “further Groundgame’s business interests in Michigan,” his contract shows.
He was tasked with giving Groundgame information about efforts to push for election reform-related ballot measures and legislation, “ground intelligence” on the best locations and time to circulate petitions and conducting “voter education” on the issue, the contract states.
The contract does not mention Protect MI Vote by name. But the ballot group has paid Groundgame $391,000 for consulting since last June, campaign finance records show.
Additionally, the contract prohibits Wefel from working on any other election reform-related “initiative, proposition, or referendum measure” on election reforms and report to Groundgame if he was contacted by any of those campaigns.
Breaching the contract would result in a $200,000 fine to Groundgame.
When a Secure MI Vote petition was mistakenly mixed in with petitions Wefel was circulating in February, Groundgame accused him of violating the agreement by collecting signatures for another election reform measure, the complaint alleges.
“(The contract’s) primary purpose was to implement a scheme to secretly buy out circulators in Michigan so that it will be more difficult for Secure MI Vote to obtain enough signatures by June 1, thus directly influencing the qualification of the Secure MI Vote Initiative Petition,” the complaint alleges.
“We were surprised that a sub-contractor to one of our prime contractors chose to breach his contract,” Trebilcock said in his statement on behalf of Protect MI Vote.
Cumings said it is likely Protect MI Vote — but he has no direct proof — has entered into such contracts with others like Wefel to thwart the Secure MI Vote efforts.
In his complaint, Wefel contended the $50,000 he received from Groundgame should have been listed on Protect MI Vote’s campaign finance reports.
Wefel entered into the contract on Nov. 24. A day earlier, Protect MI Vote had paid Groundgame $56,000 for consulting, campaign records show.
Ballot committees are required to disclose payments to independent contractors they hire under state law. And payments to subcontractors made on behalf of the committees must also be detailed on the committee’s report, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.
“If the agent or independent contractor made expenditures on the committee’s behalf, they are required to provide the committee with a breakdown of their expenditures and this must be memo-itemized on the committee’s campaign statements,” the bureau’s website states.
Groundgame, Wefel argued in his complaint, is clearly a “political consultant” for Protect MI Vote and therefore should disclose the payments.
But even if Groundgame paid Wefel independently, the amount of that payment would require Groundgame to form an independent ballot committee, the complaint argues. Groups are required to form a committee unless it has not raised or spent more than $500 under state law.
See what new members are saying about why they donated to Bridge Michigan:
- “In order for this information to be accurate and unbiased it must be underwritten by its readers, not by special interests.” - Larry S.
- “Not many other media sources report on the topics Bridge does.” - Susan B.
- “Your journalism is outstanding and rare these days.” - Mark S.
If you want to ensure the future of nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan journalism, please become a member today. You, too, will be asked why you donated and maybe we'll feature your quote next time!