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Judge rejects Perry Johnson’s request to stop printing Michigan ballots

Perry Johnson
Perry Johnson was the top spender in Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial primary before state elections officials determined he didn’t have enough valid signatures to make the primary ballot. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

A federal court on Wednesday dismissed Republican gubernatorial hopeful Perry Johnson’s request to halt printing of Michigan ballots during his fight to make the primary after he was disqualified by a signature fraud scandal.

Johnson’s attorney, Eric Esshaki, claimed in a federal lawsuit that the Michigan Bureau of Elections "unlawfully" changed petition review practices to "arbitrarily invalidate 6,983" of Johnson's signatures without double-checking each against a state database known as the Qualified Voter File. 

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The suit argued the state should either put Johnson’s name on the ballot or lower the 15,000 signature threshold required to qualify as a gubernatorial candidate for the Aug. 2 primary.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith wasn’t convinced, writing in his Monday opinion that the campaign mischaracterized the “deliberate and objective methodology” state elections staff used when verifying candidates’ nominating petitions, and failed to prove Johsnon would prevail if the process was halted for the time being. 

Michigan Bureau of Elections staff “employed eminently reasonable procedures to give Johnson’s petition a fair and particularized review while operating on a tight timeline to advance important and compelling interests,” reads the opinion from Goldsmith, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat. 

In his opinion, Goldsmith contended that granting Johnson’s request would jeopardize local government officials’ efforts to print ballots in time for the election.

The Michigan Supreme Court – including Republican-appointed justices – has already rejected similar lawsuits by Johnson, Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey. 

The state concluded the four — along with a fifth candidate who dropped out of the race — combined to submit tens of thousands of forged signatures on nominating petitions.

The unprecedented fraud scandal — attributed to paid circulators now under criminal investigation — has halved the GOP primary field competing to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. There are now five GOP candidates.

Johnson, a self-described "quality guru" from Bloomfield Hills, had been the biggest spender in the race prior to his disqualification, dropping $7 million into his campaign. 

In an affidavit accompanying his lawsuit, Johnson said he and his campaign had reviewed signatures prior to submitting them, in accordance with state guidance, and would have collected more had they known the Michigan Bureau of Elections would adopt a new review process to invalidate entire sheets submitted by fraudulent circulators. 

If left off the ballot, "I will not be able to run for office and I will have lost substantial amounts of time and money," Johnson said in the sworn statement. 

In an affidavit, Elections Director Jonathan Brater acknowledged his bureau created  a review method after discovering what appeared to be obvious forgeries, invalidating an estimated 68,759 forged signatures across ten different sets of petitions. 

State staffers visually inspected each petition, and then checked 6,876 of the suspected forgeries against versions in a state database. It did not find a single match and concluded all were fakes, Brater said in the affidavit. 

Under state law, local clerks must print absentee ballots and make them available to military and overseas voters by June 18. Five days after that, absentee ballots must be available to all voters, as required under the Michigan Constitution.

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