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James Craig, Perry Johnson sue to make Michigan ballot amid forgery scandal

James Craig, left, and Perry Johnson, right, have filed separate suits in their bids to make the Republican gubernatorial primary ballot in August. (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

LANSING — Two Republican front-runners for governor — metro Detroit businessman Perry Johnson and former Detroit Police Chief James Craig  — have filed separate suits against the Board of State Canvassers in last-minute attempts to force their way onto the ballot.

The emergency appeals follow a Thursday deadlock by the board, which kept Johnson, Craig and three GOP candidates for governor off the August ballot because of findings that paid circulators forged signatures on their nominating petitions.

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Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey also promised a lawsuit in a bid to make the ballot. Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg has called the dispute a “goat rodeo,” Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown withdrew from the race after his petitions were challenged.

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The Friday suit from Johnson, a millionaire from Bloomfield Hills, asks the Michigan Court of Appeals to order canvassers to certify his petitions by Wednesday, which would allow the state to finalize its candidate list by June 3, as planned, and mail absentee ballots to military voters by June 18, as required.

Attorneys for Johnson contend the Michigan Bureau of Elections should have double-checked the validity of every allegedly forged signature by comparing each against versions stored in a database known as the Qualified Voter File. 

The state "failed to provide specific evidence that less than 15,000 of the signatures on Mr. Johnson's petition were valid and genuine," attorneys Jonathan Koch and Jason Torchinsky wrote in the Friday complaint.

Craig’s attorneys made similar arguments in a lawsuit filed with the Michigan Court of Claims on Saturday, accusing the state of "illegal sampling" for striking signatures without reviewing them individually.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections, in a Monday staff report, said 36 fraudulent circulators forged an estimated 68,000 signatures on nominating petitions for ten different candidates, including the five GOP governor hopefuls. 

It’s the “largest petition signature forgery scandal” in state history, according to attorney Mark Brewer, who challenged Craig’s petition signatures on behalf of the Michigan Democratic Party.

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

During a review of nominating petitions, state staffers visually inspected signatures on every sheet submitted by every candidate, Elections Director Jonathan Brater told canvassers on Thursday.

Then, on sheets that appeared to be wholly fraudulent, staff double checked 7,000 suspected forgeries against real voter signatures stored in the Qualified Voter File, Brater said. 

He told canvassers that double-checking all 68,000 signatures in that fashion would not be "practical" given limited staff and time constraints.

But attorneys for Republican candidates kept off the ballot argue that the petition sheets tossed by the state may have contained some valid signatures. 

"Although it claims that 9,393 signatures on his petitions are invalid, the Bureau has never given Mr. Johnson an itemized list of each of those signatures," Koch and Torchinsky wrote in the Friday lawsuit

"Nor has the Bureau given him any explanation for its invalidation other than a general disqualification of each signatures gathered by 18 circulators for various and sundry ‘indicators’" of fraud."

The Board of State Canvassers heard similar arguments Thursday and deadlocked over whether to certify the candidates. Two Republicans canvassers voted to put all five GOP gubernatorial hopefuls on the ballot, while the two Democrats canvassers voted to keep them off.

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Markey said he intends to file a lawsuit Tuesday, just one day before a statutory June 3 deadline for canvassers to certify candidates for the ballot. 

Michigan law requires election clerks to mail absentee ballots to overseas and military voters by June 18. The Michigan Constitution requires clerks make absentee ballots available to all voters by June 23. 

The Court of Appeals indicated it will make a decision quickly, and asked both sides to submit arguments and briefs on Tuesday.

Craig’s attorneys also urged immediate consideration by the Court of Claims because of “short deadlines and likelihood of irreparable harm and disenfranchisement of voters.”

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