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James Craig, Perry Johnson, three others shouldn’t make GOP ballot, state says

James Craig, left, and Perry Johnson, right, submitted fraudulent signatures and should be disqualified from the Republican gubernatorial primary, the Bureau of Elections recommended on Monday. (Bridge file photos)

June 1: Perry Johnson loses appeal in fight to make Michigan’s GOP ballot
May 26: Board denies Craig, Johnson, others spots on Michigan ballot. Lawsuits next.
May 25: Michigan board to decide if Craig, Johnson, others make ballot: What to expect
May 24:
 GOP vows fight to keep candidates on Michigan ballot. ‘This is far from over’

LANSING — James Craig, Perry Johnson and three other Michigan gubernatorial hopefuls shouldn’t qualify for the Republican primary ballot because they submitted fraudulent or otherwise invalid signatures, state officials recommended Monday in blockbuster reports.

Craig is “far below the minimum threshold for ballot access,” according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, while Johnson appears 1,200 signatures short of the 15,000 valid signatures needed to qualify for the Aug. 2 primary. 

Candidates for governor, judicial and congressional offices must submit valid signatures from voters to make the ballot. Both Craig and Johnson were accused of submitting forged signatures collected by a group of paid circulators. All told, the state estimates the circulators submitted at least 68,000 invalid signatures on nominating petitions for 10 different judicial and gubernatorial candidates. 

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The findings are so far just recommendations, and it is up to the bipartisan Board of Canvassers to decide eligibility when it meets Thursday. 

But the reports could upend the GOP race to take Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Johnson’s campaign indicated Tuesday it plans to contest the recommendation before canvassers or in court.

Craig, the former Detroit police chief, had led all polls of what had been a 10-candidate field. Johnson, a Bloomfield Hills businessman, had already poured millions of his own dollars into television ads and a statewide bus tour. 

Keeping them off the ballot would be “the right result, because there was clearly overwhelming evidence of forgery on a massive scale on both of their petitions.” said Mark Brewer, an attorney who helped discover the alleged fraud ring and challenged Craig’s signatures on behalf of the Michigan Democratic Party. 

Tudor Dixon, who scored the backing of the powerful family of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier Monday, survived a Democratic challenge to her candidacy and should qualify for the Aug. 2 primary despite an error in her petition header, according to a Bureau of Elections report

But the bureau concluded three other candidates also submitted signatures from fraudulent circulators and fell short of the 15,000 voter signatures required to make the Aug. 2 primary ballot: Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey, Michigan State Police Captain Michael Brown and Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg.

Early Tuesday, Brown dropped out of the race, saying he was the victim of a "money grab" by unscrupulous paid signature gatherers. Because of a worker shortage, this year campaigns paid $20 or more per signature, four times the rate in 2018. 

"This is a painful but necessary decision I make decisively because that’s what the citizens deserve," Brown said.

By 8:30 a.m., there was no word from other campaigns. Any court challenge would go through the Michigan Court of Appeals but have to be adjudicated quickly: The state is required to finalize the ballot by June 3, 60 days ahead of the August primary.

If the bureau findings hold true, only five of ten remaining Republican candidates would make the primary ballot:  Dixon, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke, Allendale Township activist Ryan Kelley and Farmington Hills pastor Ralph Rebandt.

In their report, state elections officials described the scale of the forgeries and impact as "unprecedented."

"Although it is typical for staff to encounter some signatures of dubious authenticity scattered within nominating petitions, the Bureau is unaware of another election cycle in which this many circulators submitted such a substantial volume of fraudulent petition sheets consisting of invalid signatures, nor an instance in which it affected as many candidate petitions as at present," the report read.

‘Victimized’

Craig’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his attorney has acknowledged accusations that circulators submitted fraudulent signatures on his behalf. 

If true, his attorney said in a May 9 filing, “the instances of fraud injure not only the campaign and the voters whose names were wrongly affixed to the petition, but all of Chief Craig’s supporters.”

Craig submitted 21,305 petition signatures to the state last month, but only 10,192 appear valid, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections report, which identified 9,879 signatures collected by fraudulent circulators. 

Johnson, a self-proclaimed “quality guru,” submitted 23,193 nominating petition signatures to the state. Only 13,800 are valid, according to the bureau, which identified 6,983 signatures submitted by alleged forgers. 

In a statement, Johnson campaign consultant John Yob argued that Bureau of Elections staff within Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office “​​does not have the right to unilaterally void every single signature obtained by the alleged forgers who victimized” multiple campaigns.

“We strongly believe they are refusing to count thousands of signatures from legitimate voters who signed the petitions and look forward to winning this fight before the board, and if necessary, in the courts,” Yob said. 

Challengers claim the alleged fraud ring used a "round-robin" technique to fill out each other’s petitions by forging names from a list of legitimate voters. Tell-tale signs made fakes easy to spot: Similar handwriting, repeated spelling errors and consistent patterns across multiple petition sheets, according to the challenges.

The Bureau of Elections, in a separate 17-page report on fraudulent nomination petitions, said it "does not have reason to believe that any specific candidates or campaigns were aware of the activities of fraudulent-petition circulators."

But, the report continued, "the Bureau does recommend that candidates and campaigns implement a quality control process before filing petitions, and to cross out any invalid signatures proper to submission."

Johnson, whose firms train and test other companies seeking industry certifications, earlier Monday proposed what he called "qualify reforms" to the petition process. 

Among other things, Johnson suggested any campaign "victimized" by unscrupulous petition circulators should be given an extra week to submit replacement signatures.  He also suggested the state should offer to  vet signatures for candidates prior to the filing deadline "for a reasonable fee.”

“Michigan’s petition process is fatally flawed because it easily allows criminals to victimize candidates for public office and their thousands of supporters who legitimately sign petitions," Johnson said in a statement earlier Monday.

DeVoses back Dixon

Dixon had a much better Monday and appears primed to make the GOP primary ballot after surviving a Democratic Party challenge. 

The Norton Shores businesswoman and conservative media personality began her day by celebrating an endorsement from the DeVos family, prolific west Michigan donors who pledged to assist her campaign. 

Then, in the afternoon, the Michigan Bureau of Elections recommended Dixon qualify for the August gubernatorial primary despite a date error in the header of her nominating petitions. 

Democrats had argued Dixon’s petitions should be scrapped because of a “fatal flaw.” 

They indicated she is running for a gubernatorial term that expires in 2026. Under the Michigan Constitution, however, the term will actually expire at 11:59 am on January 1, 2027.

But the error was “harmless,” according to a Bureau of Elections report, which cited previous guidance indicating that failure to include a term expiration date is not a disqualifying factor if it is still clear which office the candidate is seeking. 

Dixon had turned in 29,240 nominating petition signatures, far more than the 15,000 required, and 29,041 were valid, according to the bureau. Whitmer, whose signatures were not challenged, was the only candidate to turn in the maximum 30,000. 

In endorsing Dixon earlier Monday, former Amway CEO Dick DeVos said his family was “confident” she was going to qualify for the ballot. 

"It's time for a change in leadership," DeVos said in a radio interview on WJR-AM 760, criticizing Whitmer, the first-term incumbent Democrat. "We think Tudor, as a business leader, as a mom, has the experience, the passion and a plan to put the state back on track."

Dixon has also courted a potential endorsement from former President Donald Trump and, in a recent debate, falsely claimed the Republican had won Michigan despite losing to Democratic President Joe Biden by 154,188 votes. 

"We've seen the enthusiasm for the former president, we've seen the performance of the current president, and it just seems like there was a lot of support for (Trump) that wasn't counted," Dixon told Bridge Michigan after the debate, questioning whether the 2020 contest was "legitimate." 

Dixon in February hosted a fundraiser at Trump's Mar-A-Lago resort, where he called her "very special." The former president also praised her during an April rally in Macomb County, calling Dixon a "fantastic" and "brilliant" candidate.

Despite compliments from Trump, Dixon’s campaign has been slow to take off.

In a recent survey of 500 likely Republican primary voters, Dixon polled eighth with less than 2 percent support.  She reported roughly $505,000 in campaign contributions last year, less than the $2 million raised by Craig and Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke. 

Whitmer had raised $19 million at the same point and reported $9.9 million in cash reserves. 

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