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What to know about forgery scandal: Michigan rules toughest in nation

signature collector
Michigan has the most stringent requirements for statewide candidates to make the ballot. (Shutterstock)

May 25: Michigan board to decide if Craig, Johnson, others make ballot: What to expect

Michigan has the most stringent requirements for statewide candidates to get on the ballot, with its demands for 15,000 valid signatures exceeded by no other state.

In most states, candidates for governor only need to pay a fee and be a leading candidate within one of the two major parties, said Richard Winger, an advocate for greater ballot access who edits an online publication focused on ballot issues.

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The next highest signature requirement, Winger said, is the 10,000 valid signatures it takes to get on the statewide ballot in Massachusetts and Virginia.

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“I think it’s irrational to require (signatures),” Winger said.

Winger advocates for easier access for candidates and said the rationale for stiffer requirements is usually to avoid crowded ballots.

“But I think people can cope with a ballot with 10 names on it,” Winger said.

The issue has been thrust into debate following a bombshell report Monday by the Bureau of Elections recommending that five of 10 Republicans running for governor should be removed from the ballot because they missed the signature threshold after thousands of signatures were disqualified because of forgery claims.

The bureau is overseen by a Democrat, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Republicans have vowed to fight the recommendation Thursday when it goes before the Michigan Board of Canvassers.

State elections workers identified over 68,000 invalid signatures from the five gubernatorial candidates, concluding that former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, metro Detroit businessman Perry Johnson, financial advisor Michael Markey, businesswoman Donna Brandenberg and Michigan State Police Captain Michael Brown should be disqualified.

Candidates for governor, judicial and congressional offices must submit valid signatures from voters to make the ballot. 

Here’s what else you need to know about the issue:

Who needs signatures?

In Michigan, candidates for governor, judicial and congressional offices must submit valid signatures from voters to make the ballot. 

The state used to have even tougher restrictions. Before a revamp in 2000, candidates for governor had to get signatures from 1 percent of the votes cast for secretary of state in the previous election. If that law still was in effect, candidates would have needed nearly 42,000 signatures this year rather than 15,000.

Like in many parts of the United States, candidates in the United Kingdom and Canada just need 10 or 100 signatures and pay a fee, Winger said. In the UK, if those candidates get at least 5 percent of the vote, they get the fee back.

Has this happened before?

In 2012, U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Livonia, dropped out after it was discovered that four members of his staff filed fraudulent signatures; each was subsequently charged with election fraud crimes.  

Also in 2012, an Ottawa County judicial candidate did not make the ballot after fraudulent signatures were discovered. Ultimately, GOP activist Brandon Hall was convicted for forging signatures on the nominating petitions.

But nothing of this scale has happened in Michigan, the Bureau of Elections concluded. In its report, the bureau repeatedly calls the forgery scandal “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.

What happened?

Several campaigns claim they were victimized by what they called a ring of unscrupulous signature gatherers.

Because of a worker shortage and high demand for professional circulators, the cost of a single signature jumped this year in Michigan to $20 from $5 a few years ago. Campaign consultants earlier this year told Bridge they worried that could make it tempting to cheat.

The state report linked some of the paid circulators to First Choice Consulting, a firm run by Shawn Wilmoth of Warren, who did not return phone calls.

Ballot-access advocate Winger said he would have thought the rising costs for signatures would be an impediment to fraud, as companies wouldn’t risk losing profits by cheating.

“When the rates are that high (you’d think) they don’t want to lose their job,” he said.

Have others been removed from the ballot this year?

Yes, but for a separate issue — because Michigan recently has taken a tougher stance on ballot access. 

A 2021 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling on a case out of Wayne County called for election officials to reject candidates if their required “affidavits of identity” — notices that identify the candidate, their address and the office they are seeking — had missing or incomplete information. 

On the affidavit, the candidate has to acknowledge that they are up to date with all campaign finance requirements, including late fees and fines.

At least 12 candidates for local, state and federal offices have been rejected because they were not in compliance with campaign finance requirements, including incumbent state Sen. Betty Jean Alexander and state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, both Detroit Democrats.

Are there other controversies with petitions?

Michigan’s election laws on gathering signatures have no prohibition on lying. 

Paid and volunteer petition circulators can tell people anything to get them to sign. That’s caused regular complaints about circulators misleading voters about petitions.

Last year, Attorney General Dana Nessel concluded that organizers of a ballot measure to restrict the governor’s emergency powers used “unsavory practices and sleazy tactics,” but the actions weren’t criminal.

Would reforms work?

Legislators have suggested reforms but none have passed. State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, in 2017 proposed an anti-lying provision for petition circulators; it did not become law.

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In 2020, Hertel and other senate Democrats introduced a package of bills designed to reform the petition process. One of the bills would have made it illegal for a signature-gathering firm to hire people with election fraud convictions. It was referred to a committee and has not been considered since. 

The owner of the firm tied to this week’s scandal, Wilmoth, pleaded guilty to two counts of election fraud for his role collecting signatures in Virginia in 2011.

He got three years probation. He said one of the charges stemmed from his firm hiring convicted felons.

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