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Perry Johnson loses appeal in fight to make Michigan’s GOP ballot

Perry Johnson
Bloomfield Hills businessman Perry Johnson lost another bid to make the ballot on Wednesday, as a court panel ruled that state elections officials have “discretion to disqualify their obviously fraudulent signatures. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

June 2: James Craig loses ballot access suit; Johnson appeals to Michigan Supreme Court

LANSING — Republican gubernatorial hopeful Perry Johnson has no legal right to appear on Michigan’s primary ballot after his campaign submitted forged signatures on nominating petitions, an appeals court panel ruled Wednesday.

The Bloomfield HIlls businessman campaigning as a “quality guru” had sued the state for ballot access last week after the Board of State Canvassers voted against certifying nominating petitions for five GOP gubernatorial candidates.

Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey lost a similar lawsuit on Wednesday but promised an appeal to the state Supreme Court. A state judge has not yet ruled on a ballot access suit by Detroit Police Chief James Craig as the state nears its Friday deadline to finalize a primary candidate list.

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Johnson’s attorneys argued the Michigan Bureau of Elections should have double-checked every suspected forgery against voter signatures stored in a state database known as the Qualified Voter File. 

But the “plain language” of Michigan law gave the state “discretion to disqualify their obviously fraudulent signatures without checking the signatures against local registration records,” the appeals panel wrote Wednesday in a unanimous opinion

The three-judge panel, which includes appointees of both Republican and Democratic governors, cited evidence that paid circulators “signed Johnson’s nominating petitions with names other than their own and that they signed his nominating petitions with multiple names.”

The Board of State Canvassers “had a clear legal duty to investigate, but it did not have a clear legal duty to conduct a comparison of each fraudulent signature against the qualified voter file,” wrote judges Kirsten Frank Kelly, Michael J. Kelly and Noah P. Hood.

It’s possible Johnson could still appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

But the ruling would appear to make it unlikely that Johnson will make the Aug. 2 primary ballot despite pumping millions of his own dollars into television ads, a statewide bus tour and other campaign events. 

Markey, in announcing plans to take his case to the Supreme Court, said he will continue to fight what he called a "miscarriage of justice." The state's highest court should not allow the Michigan Secretary of State's office to serve as "judge, jury and executioner in deciding who gets on the ballot," he said. 

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 staff report released last week, said 36 fraudulent circulators forged an estimated 68,000 signatures on nominating petitions for 10 different candidates, including GOP hopefuls Craig, Johnson, Markey, Michael Brown (who has dropped out) and Donna Brandenburg.

Mark Brewer, a Democratic attorney who challenged Craig’s petition signatures, has called it the “largest and worst petition signature forgery scandal in Michigan history.”

Gubernatorial candidates are required to collect at least 15,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. 

The Michigan Bureau of Elections said Johnson submitted 6,983 signatures from the fraudulent circulators, while Craig’s campaign submitted 9.879 signatures from the accused circulators.

The disqualifications leave five GOP candidates in the race to take on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: Norton Shores media personality Tudor Dixon, Bloomfield Township businessman Kevin Rinke, Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, Allendale Township real estate agent Ryan Kelley and Oakland Hills Community Church pastor Ralph Rebandt.

Writing on Twitter, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said “candidates bear a responsibility for submitting sufficient, valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“I’m glad the court recognized this and grateful for the professional staff at the Bureau of Elections, their meticulous attention to detail and their compliance with the law,” she wrote.

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

Speaking with Bridge Michigan earlier Wednesday, Nessel said she believes “there has to be a level of accountability” for the signature forgery scandal and said her office will investigate. 

“We are going to review all the applicable laws, and in the event we have violations of laws, you should expect us to move forward with prosecutions,” Nessel said. 

“In the event we find that the appropriate legal authority doesn’t exist or that we need stronger penalties, you can absolutely count on the fact that my department will be making those recommendations to the Legislature.”

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