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Michigan board to decide if Craig, Johnson, others make ballot: What to expect

Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, James Craig, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey
The Board of State Canvassers on Thursday will decide whether Republican gubernatorial candidates Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, James Craig, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey should make the August primary ballot. (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
May 26: Board denies Craig, Johnson, others spots on Michigan ballot. Lawsuits next.

LANSING — Two Republicans and two Democrats will vote Thursday on whether five GOP candidates for Michigan governor should qualify for the primary ballot after allegedly submitting forged signatures collected by paid circulators.

Michigan’s bipartisan Board of State Canvassers is set to convene in Lansing for what members expect to be a marathon session.They’ll decide whether to certify nominating petitions for more than 100 candidates, including many in question.

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The Michigan Bureau of Elections on Monday recommended canvassers keep a total of 18 declared candidates off the Aug. 2 ballot because they did not appear to collect enough valid signatures to qualify, potentially dooming their campaigns.

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In issuing its recommendations, the bureau exposed what  it called an “unprecedented” forgery scandal. Staffers estimate 36 paid circulators submitted 68,000 fake signatures on nominating petitions for 10 candidates, including five governor hopefuls.

"This is an incredible, incredible encroachment and attack on our election system," said Chris Thomas, a former Michigan Bureau of Elections Director, who expects the state to file criminal charges against the accused circulators.

"I've never seen anything like it."

While the bureau submitted reports to canvassers on Monday, board members are not required to follow their recommendations. 

Instead, the political appointees are expected to hear arguments from attorneys and advocates for candidates and challengers, who will fight over ballot access prior to votes.

What follows is a guide to what to expect from the meeting. (Spoiler alert: The odds are stacked against candidates recommended for disqualification.)

Who are the candidates that could be kept off the ballot?

Republican gubernatorial candidates James Craig, Perry Johnson, Donna Brandenburg, Michael Markey and Michael Brown should not qualify for the ballot, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections. 

Brown has withdrawn, but Johnson and Craig have both indicated they plan to continue their fight for ballot access, either before canvassers on Thursday or later in court. 

Thirteen other candidates also failed to submit enough signatures, according to the state: Congressional hopefuls Gabriella Manolache, Jake Hagg, Elizabeth Ferszt, Joseph Alfonso; and judicial hopefuls Chastity Youngblood, Michael Tinney, John Michael Malone, Mark Koroi, Tricia Dare, Philip Cavanagh, Angelique Camfield, Christine Beecher.

Several other candidates faced petition challenges from political foes but should qualify for the ballot, according to the bureau. That includes Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tudor Dixon, who had an error in her petition header that could still draw additional scrutiny from Democratic canvassers. 

Read Michigan Bureau of Elections reports on the candidates here.

Who are the canvassers?

The Board of State Canvassers is intentionally bipartisan, as mandated by the Michigan Constitution, which holds that no single political party should hold a majority of the four seats. 

In practical terms, that means two Democrats and two Republicans. Every two years, canvassers are nominated by each of the major political parties, and then appointed or reappointed by the sitting governor. 

The board is chaired by Norm Shinkle, a Republican who has led the 8th Congressional District GOP Committee and is now running for the state House. 

Tony Daunt is a long-time Republican operative appointed to the board last year. He recently resigned from the Michigan GOP’s central committee, arguing party officials are catering to former President Donald Trump's "delusional lies" about the 2020 election. 

Democratic canvasser Jeannette Bradshaw is a union official who has served on the board since 2013. 

Fellow Democrat Mary Ellen Gurewitz is an attorney who helped defeat lawsuits trying to overturn Michigan's 2020 election. She was appointed to the board in December and is the newest state canvasser. 

Do Johnson and Craig have a shot?

Thursday’s meeting could put Republican canvassers in an awkward position because Craig and Johnson are among the biggest names in the GOP gubernatorial field competing to take on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Craig, the former Detroit police chief, has led all polls of the race. Johnson, a Bloomfield Hills businessman, is the biggest spender, having already poured millions of his own dollars into television ads and a statewide bus tour. 

Earlier this month, Daunt told Bridge Michigan he plans to follow the law.

“Whether I agree with the candidate, whether I’ll disagree with the candidate, if they haven’t met the requirements of the law, then they’re not fit to run for office or to have ballot access,” Daunt said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The Michigan Bureau of Elections found that nearly half of the 21,305 signatures filed by Craig’s campaign were collected by fraudulent circulators or are otherwise invalid. Johnson's campaign, meanwhile, submitted almost 7,000 signatures on petitions filled out by the accused circulators.

Johnson’s campaign and the Michigan Republican Party don’t deny circulators forged signatures and “defrauded” candidates. But they’ve questioned whether the bureau verified each signature from the accused circulators or simply threw them all out. Some might actually be valid, they contend.

It appears unlikely canvassers will certify the petitions, however, according to Thomas, the former state elections director. 

“It’s a no-brainer (to keep them off the ballot) unless the candidates can come in and show that they have 15,000 valid signatures, or whatever the floor is for the race involved,” Thomas told Bridge Michigan. 

“If they can do that, fantastic. But I doubt they can.”

What happens if canvassers deadlock?

The Board of State Canvassers can only certify candidates for the primary ballot with a bipartisan vote. If Democratic canvassers vote to keep Johnson, Craig – or even Dixon – off the ballot, Republicans alone cannot certify them. 

In the case of 2-2 deadlock, the board would not have enough votes to certify a candidate’s nominating petitions, which means they would not make the ballot.

What happens to candidates kept off the ballot?

Any candidate denied ballot access can take their case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where they could try to persuade a panel of judges to order canvassers to certify their petitions. 

The candidates – and courts – would have to act quickly, however. 

The state is aiming to finalize the ballot by June 3, 60 days ahead of the primary. That is supposed to give clerks time to print absentee ballots, which under the Michigan Constitution, must be available to all voters 40 days before an election.

Should I pack a lunch? Dinner too?

The Board of State Canvassers meeting is scheduled to begin Thursday at 9 a.m. inside the Boji Tower in downtown Lansing. 

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When it will end is anyone’s guess. 

There are 40 items listed on the agenda, including a public comment period. Advocates for 33 candidates, along with challengers, will be given the opportunity to argue signature validity before the board. 

Canvassers have already asked the state to provide them with lunch — and potentially dinner — in preparation for what could be a marathon meeting.

“If the (Bureau of Elections) staff does a good job, the meeting won’t be as long because some of these candidates who are supposed to be on the ballot are going to realize they’re done,” Shinkle, the board chairman, said in early May.

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