Michigan Supreme Court upholds disqualification of GOP candidates
June 16: How one firm in a ‘Wild West’ industry upended the Michigan GOP governor race
June 14: James Craig to run as write-in for Michigan governor: ‘Everything is possible.’
June 13: Judge rejects Perry Johnson’s request to stop printing Michigan ballots
June 10: ‘Pure chaos’ in Michigan as FBI arrest, forgeries rock GOP governor primary
June 6: Perry Johnson takes ballot case to federal court after losing in Michigan
LANSING — The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday rejected lawsuits by three Republican gubernatorial candidates kept off the ballot after the state said they submitted 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.
James Craig, the former Detroit Police Chief who had led all polls, won't be on the Aug. 2 ballot. Neither will Perry Johnson, the self-described "quality guru" who already spent millions of his own money on the campaign or Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey.
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As of Friday evening, the court had not yet ruled on a fourth lawsuit filed by Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, who was kept off the ballot last week by the Board of State Canvassers.
In an affidavit, Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Jonathan Brater acknowledged the state had overlooked a second set of signatures Brandenburg had filed on the April 19 deadline. But many of those were forged too, he contended.
The decision likely leaves five candidates in the race to take on first-term Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: media personality Tudor Dixon, businessman Kevin Rinke, chiropractor Garrett Soldano, activist Ryan Kelley and pastor Ralph Rebandt.
The forgery scandal “decapitated” the top of the GOP ticket in Michigan, said John Sellek, founder of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs who previously worked on Republican Bill Schuette’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
For Craig, who led polls from the time he entered the race last year, “to completely implode and disappear off the ballot is something we've never seen before,” Sellek told Bridge Michigan on Friday.
Craig, Johnson and other candidates denied ballot access have described themselves as victims of unscrupulous signature gatherers. The candidates contend some of the signatures gathered by those circulators may have been valid, however.
Speaking Sunday to Fox News, Craig said blasted the court decision, saying it "didn't follow the statutes."
"It’s not over. I’m not going to let it go," Craig said. "We are going to evaluate next steps."
Markey dropped out of the race on Saturday, while Johnson still had not spoken publicly as of Sunday morning.
In their lawsuits, the candidates contended the Michigan Bureau of Elections should have double-checked all 68,759 suspected forgeries against versions stored in a state database known as the Qualified Voter File.
Doing so would have taken up to 5,150 hours of staff time — the equivalent of a staff of 30 working for seven days straight.
Johnson’s lawsuit “plainly lacks merit because he cannot show the Board of State Canvassers had a clear legal duty to certify his name to the ballot,” Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, a Democratic nominee, wrote in a concurring opinion Friday.
Justice Brian Zahra, a Republican nominee, agreed, but in a separate concurring opinion, he suggested the Legislature change state law so that candidates would have to submit nominating petitions earlier in the year, giving courts more time to review ballot access disputes.
Ballot access cases “can present substantial and complex questions of law, which generally require extensive briefing and cannot properly be resolved in a matter of days,” he wrote.
"Here, even if Johnson is correct that the Bureau of Elections erred by failing to check every signature against the qualified voter file, Johnson would only be entitled to that relief, not the placement of his name on the ballot," Zahra wrote.
Justice Richard Bernstein, a Democratic nominee, was a lone dissenter on the seven-member court. He wrote he would have supported allowing oral arguments for the candidates because the appeal “raises serious concerns about ballot access and whether the current process implemented by the state appropriately balances real concerns about fraud against the possibility of disenfranchising both candidates and voters.”
A fifth gubernatorial candidate — Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown — withdrew from the race last week, saying he "cannot and will not be associated” with petition circulator fraud.
In a late Thursday appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, Craig's attorneys said two subcontractors he had hired to circulate petitions provided "assurances that the signatures they were collecting were valid" and checked petitions "against their own voter data to ensure that signers were Michigan voters."
Some of the signatures the suspected forgers submitted may have actually been valid, but the state created a "novel process” for disqualifying entire petition sheets without providing Craig notice or an opportunity to prepare a defense, argued attorneys Michael Homier and Edward Greim.
"Striking nominating petition signatures has the potential to work great mischief in the major parties’ internal affairs, as it potentially allows hostile state officials to pick and choose those who will stand in an opposing party’s primary,” they wrote.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections estimates the five GOP gubernatorial hopefuls and three other judicial candidates submitted 68,759 forged signatures from 36 individual circulators accused of fraud.
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, according to an affidavit from Brater, the elections director.
Brandenburg had argued the Michigan Bureau of Elections did not count as many as 8,000 additional signatures she submitted in a second filing. Regardless, the state found she still did not have the 15,000 valid signatures required to make the ballot, according to Brater.
Markey's attorneys bashed the state's petition disqualification process as a "product of bureaucratic creativity rather than law" and said he should have been ordered onto the ballot as a result.
Friday’s Supreme Court decision came on the state’s legal deadline to finalize its candidate list for the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Local clerks must prepare absentee ballots to mail to military and overseas voters by June 18.
Gubernatorial candidates were required to collect at least 15,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot.
The disqualifications for Craig and Johnson have paved the way for Dixon to emerge as a new frontrunner in the race, said Sellek, the campaign strategist who worked for 2018 GOP nominee Schuette.
Rinke is a self-funding millionaire with a cash advantage, and Soldano has a “charm factor” that could give him a boost, Sellek said.
But Dixon’s recent endorsements from the DeVos family and Right to Life of Michigan will likely boost her profile and make her the candidate to beat, he continued.
“We've probably never seen an anointed front-runner who was polling in single digits,” he said of Dixon.
“It's a question of who can seize this opening in the absence of James Craig to make their message clear, and Tudor Dixon has gotten two big endorsements in a row.”
The Michigan Bureau of Elections referred its fraudulent circulator findings last week to Attorney General Dana Nessel. Speaking with Bridge 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.
It is the “largest and worst petition signature forgery scandal in Michigan history,” according to Mark Brewer, a Democratic attorney who challenged Craig’s petition signatures, along with a GOP super PAC supporting Dixon.
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