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James Craig loses ballot access suit; Johnson appeals to Michigan Supreme Court

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig is the latest Republican bounced from the ballot to lose a lawsuit seeking access to the August primary. (Bridge file photo)

June 3: Michigan Supreme Court upholds disqualification of GOP candidates

LANSING — A Michigan judge late Wednesday rejected a ballot access lawsuit by James Craig, the latest in a series of rulings against Republican gubernatorial candidates ensnared in a signature forgery scandal.

Craig, the former Detroit Police chief, had led all polls of the GOP field before submitting 9,879 signatures on nominating petitions the state says were filled out by a fraudulent circulator ring now under criminal investigation. 

Fellow candidate Perry Johnson, the biggest spender in the race, lost a similar lawsuit Wednesday. On Thursday, he appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, asking justices for an order that would force him back on the ballot. 

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Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg filed a new lawsuit with the Michigan Supreme Court early Thursday morning as well. And Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey also appealed to the state’s highest court after losing his initial case with the Court of Appeals. 

In rejecting Craig’s lawsuit, Court of Claims Judge Elizabeth Gleicher wrote she was bound by the recent and unanimous Court of Appeals ruling denying Johnson’s initial lawsuit to try and force his way onto the ballot. 

The appeals court panel “made clear” the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers “did not have a clear legal duty” to compare every signature – which the Michigan Bureau of Elections said were obviously forged — against versions stored in a database known as the Qualified Voter File, Gleicher wrote. 

In her 11–page opinion, Gleicher also rejected Craig's allegations he was denied due process by the state or treated unfairly by the state. Because the “procedures employed in these case were uniformly applied to all affected candidates, he cannot allege any unfair or disparate treatment,” she wrote. 

Craig released a statement vowing to appeal, adding "our fight is not over."

"The voters should be deciding who their candidates are, not an unelected board of government bureaucrats," he said.

Johnson’s attorneys are asking the Michigan Supreme Court to step in and decide the ballot dispute by Friday, the state’s legal deadline to finalize candidate listings for the August primary ballot. Election administrators must have absentee ballots printed by June 18 to provide to military and overseas voters. 

In an emergency filing for immediate consideration, Johnson's attorneys continue to argue that the Michigan Bureau of Elections should have double-checked voter signatures by comparing them to versions stored in the Qualified Voter File. 

They contend failure to do so was a violation of state law. 

By rejecting his initial lawsuit, the Court of Appeals “effectively silenced the voices of the thousands of Michiganders who signed Perry Johnson’s nominating petitions, to say nothing of the thousands of Michiganders who signed petitions for other candidates that were disqualified for similarly improper reasons,” wrote attorneys Jonathan Koch and Jason Torchinsky. 

In her new lawsuit, Brandenburg argued the Michigan Bureau of Elections did not count as many as 8,000 additional signatures she submitted in a second filing, a claim the Bureau of Elections has already denied. 

Other signatures submitted by accused circulators should be “presumed valid” until checked against the Qualified Voter File, wrote Brandenburg campaign attorneys Scott Smith and Daniel Hartman.

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

In a staff report last week, the Michigan Bureau of Elections said 36 fraudulent circulators forged an estimated 68,000 signatures on nominating petitions for 10 different candidates, including the five GOP gubernatorial hopefuls.

Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater said staffers visually inspected signatures on every petition sheet. 

Then, on sheets that appeared to be 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 last week before they kept the five GOP candidates off the ballot in a series of partisan votes. 

Mark Brewer, a Democratic attorney who challenged Craig’s petition signatures, has called it the “largest and worst petition signature forgery scandal in Michigan history.”

Gubernatorial candidates are required to collect at least 15,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. 

Because of fraudulent circulators, the state says only five of ten declared GOP gubernatorial candidates met that threshold: Norton Shores media personality Tudor Dixon, Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, Allendale Township real estate agent Ryan Kelley and Oakland Hills Community Church pastor Ralph Rebandt.

The winner of the Aug. 2 primary will face incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the November general election. 

The Michigan Bureau of Elections referred its fraudulent circulator findings last week to Attorney General Dana Nessel for a criminal investigation. 

Speaking with Bridge Michigan on Wednesday, Nessel said she believes “there has to be a level of accountability” for the signature forgery scandal and said her office will investigate.

Under one state law, circulators could face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 for each petition they filed.

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