Five Points On The Signature Forgery Scandal That’s Scrambling Michigan Politics

Michigan Bureau of Elections

The crowded race for Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial nomination might thin out quite a bit by the end of the week. 

On Monday, the state’s Bureau of Elections released a stunning report stating that 5 out of 10 candidates for the GOP nomination had in fact submitted so many invalid signatures, they might not be eligible to appear on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers will vote Thursday on whether or not the candidates’ qualify to appear on the ballot.  

Here’s what you need to know: 

A Seemingly Organized Signature Fraud Ring Has Totally Reoriented The Michigan Governor’s Race

Candidates for governor need to submit 15,000 valid signatures to appear on the primary ballot. To reach that number, it’s common practice for candidates in Michigan and elsewhere to hire individuals, called petition circulators, to collect signatures in addition to their own volunteers. 

Now, the Michigan Bureau of Elections, which investigates complaints about invalid signatures, has found that multiple candidates — including leading GOP contenders James Craig and Perry Johnson — hired a group of petition circulators that, actually, submitted nearly 70,000 forged or otherwise invalid signatures. 

Bureau staff “identified 36 petition circulators who submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures,” the report said. “In total, the Bureau estimates that these circulators submitted at least 68,000 invalid signatures submitted across 10 sets of nominating petitions.”

Because of the “unprecedented” amount of fraud, the Bureau’s report said, it wasn’t able to individually check every signature. Rather, the state spot-checked signatures, confirmed they were all fraudulent, and then invalidated every signature gathered by this group of “fraudulent circulators.” 

Footnotes in the report cited articles about signature gathering work in other states, all linked to the same man: Shawn Wilmoth. For the Bureau, he appears to be a key figure in this story. TPM’s messages to Wilmoth went unanswered Tuesday. 

One Candidate Has Already Dropped Out

At least one of the five Republicans whose signatures were flagged as invalid announced that he is dropping out: Michael Brown, a captain with the Michigan State Police. 

“The campaign was going great,” a deflated Brown told TPM Tuesday. “I can say that laughing, with a little tear in my eye.”

Petition circulators flagged as “fraudulent” by the Bureau of Elections collected the majority of Brown’s signatures — though the former candidate asserted that the bulk of his entries were actually valid. Brown confirmed that his campaign had hired Wilmoth’s firm, First Choice Contracting, to both collect signatures and validate signatures that Brown’s campaign volunteers had collected. On Tuesday afternoon, Brown told TPM that Wilmoth wasn’t responding to him, either.

“Individuals on my campaign team had known of his company and his ability to obtain signatures and validate them,” Brown said of Wilmoth. “In Michigan, there’s only a few companies that assist with that.” 

On Thursday, Many More Candidates Could Be Disqualified

The report deeming thousands of signatures invalid on Monday isn’t the last word: The actual decision on whether candidates can appear on the ballot falls to the Board of State Canvassers, a four-person body with two Democrats and two Republicans. The Board will vote on qualifications Thursday. 

You may have heard about the Board: In 2020, Donald Trump pressured its members to ignore Joe Biden’s victory in Michigan and certify the race for him instead. One Republican ultimately abstained from that vote, and the other sided with Democrats to affirm Biden’s win. The Biden-voting Republican was subsequently replaced by the state GOP. 

There are some signs that the Board’s Republicans will heed the report from the Bureau of Elections — including recent interviews in which they voiced their commitment to election rules. But they’re no doubt feeling the pressure now that the Bureau has found leading Republicans may not have enough valid signatures to qualify. A consultant for the Johnson campaign said Monday night that he and others on the campaign “look forward to winning this fight before the Board, and if necessary, in the courts.”

A Key Figure In The Alleged Fraud Is The Forrest Gump Of Signature Schemes

As mentioned, the Bureau appears to believe that the group of allegedly fraudulent circulators are tied to a man named Shawn Wilmoth. Brown confirmed that he’d hired Wilmoth’s firm, and the Bureau’s report cites several news reports about him in its footnotes. 

“None of my clients are willing to admit they are my clients,” Wilmoth told the website Sports Handle last year. “I pull the strings in the background.” 

In 2011, Wilmoth pleaded guilty to two counts of election fraud in Virginia, admitting to hiring two ex-cons and tasking them with signing their names as witnesses to dozens of signatures they didn’t actually collect. (He reportedly later claimed that the allegations were false.) 

In 2017, Michigan’s then-Lt. Gov. Brian Calley hired Wilmoth to collect signatures for a ballot measure that would make the state’s legislature operate seasonally, but the effort ended without enough signatures to make the ballot. 

Last year, Wilmoth worked on an unsuccessful Las Vegas Sands-backed effort to gather signatures supporting the expansion of casino gambling in Florida. Officials across the state uncovered thousands of potentially fraudulent signatures for the campaign. They did not claim Wilmoth was involved in wrongdoing in Florida, and Wilmoth denied wrongdoing in that state in an interview with Sports Handle

The Tumult Leaves An Opening For A Trump Die-Hard With DeVos Money

If the Board of State Canvassers does in fact rule that 5 out of 10 GOP gubernatorial contenders are ineligible to run, that would be a boon for one person: Tudor Dixon. Michigan’s wealthiest political kingmakers, the DeVos family, endorsed Dixon Monday before the fraudulent signature news broke, and a challenge to Dixon’s signatures failed. Donald Trump has also helped Dixon out, appearing at a fundraiser for her at Mar-a-Lago in February and shouting her out at a rally in Michigan last month. 

Those supporters map well onto Dixon’s politics. She wrote after the 2020 election, “Steal an election then hide behind calls for unity and leftists lap it up.” And she supports a cause close to the DeVoses: privatizing education. She also opposes abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

A super PAC supporting Dixon’s candidacy was among the Michigan political entities to file a complaint alleging widespread fraud in the signature sheets of Craig, one of her primary competitors. 

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