A signature forgery scandal has turned the race for the GOP nomination to be Michigan’s next governor on its head: Two leading Republican candidates did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot after invalid signatures were excluded, according to a report from the state’s Bureau of Elections.
The Bureau of Elections reports will now go to the Board of State Canvassers, which will vote Thursday on which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot for the state’s Aug. 2 primaries.
Thirty-six petition circulators — campaign workers hired to collect signatures — “submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures,” according to the Bureau. In all, according to the Bureau’s report Monday, these circulators submitted at least 68,000 invalid signatures across nominating petitions for 10 candidates.
Both leading Republican candidates submitted well above the 15,000 signatures necessary, but were subsequently hit with complaints that that counts contained fraudulent signatures.
James Craig (pictured above), the former Detroit police chief, submitted more than 11,100 invalid signatures and just under 10,200 valid ones, according to the Bureau’s report. Bureau staff noted “consistent handwriting for the entirety of a petition sheet, including signatures” and evidence of “round-tabling,” or the practice of passing a petition sheet around in a group to make entries appear more authentic.
Another candidate, Perry Johnson, submitted nearly 14,000 valid signatures — not enough to make the ballot — and over 9,000 invalid signatures. The same group of petition circulators who submitted thousands of invalid signature pages for Craig’s campaign did so for Johnson’s, the Bureau reported. A report noted incorrect addresses and misspelled names.
Three additional Republican gubernatorial candidates also fell far short of the valid signatures needed to qualify, the Bureau said: Michael Brown, Michael Markey and Donna Brandenburg. Each submitted well more than 15,000 signatures, but in all three cases, more than 10,000 were deemed invalid.
Candidates need 15,000 valid signatures to qualify for the gubernatorial primary ballot, and were allowed to submit up to 30,000 for review. Gubernatorial candidates also need at least 100 signatures from at least half of the state’s congressional districts. Prices for signature-gatherers spiked this cycle, increasing pressure on campaigns as they raced to meet the qualifying figure.
The ultimate decision on the candidates’ qualifications for office is up to the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, which is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans and is set to meet Thursday.
If the Board of State Canvassers heeds the Bureau of Elections’ report and disqualifies 5 out of 10 Republican gubernatorial contenders, that could open the door for Tudor Dixon — who’s denied that Joe Biden won Michigan in the 2020 election and on Monday received the endorsement of the wealthy DeVos family, Michigan’s most influential political kingmakers. Dixon, notably, is also the only candidate to receive a shout-out at Donald Trump’s rally in Michigan last month: The former president called her “fantastic” and “brilliant.”
At least one campaign vowed to fight for their qualification Monday night.
“The staff of the Democrat Secretary of Staff [sic] does not have the right to unilaterally void every single signature obtained by the alleged forgers who victimized five campaigns,” John Yob, a consultant for Johnson, wrote on Twitter, adding: “We strongly believe they are refusing to count thousands of signatures from legitimate voters who signed the petitions and look forward to winning this fight before the Board, and if necessary, in the courts.”
That appeared to be a response to the Bureau’s statement that, due to the “unprecedented” scale of the invalid signature issue this year, staff did not review every petition sheet individually. Rather, they isolated those sheets submitted by petition circulators whose work they determined was fraudulent, and conducted “a targeted signature check” to confirm that the circulators’ submissions were in fact full of fraudulent entries.
“At this point, the Bureau does not have reason to believe that any specific candidates or campaigns were aware of the activities of fraudulent-petition circulators,” the report noted.
The findings announced Monday come after several complaints were lodged against Republican gubernatorial contenders.
According to a Democratic Party-backed complaint filed by Mark Brewer alleged in April, Craig’s campaign submitted nearly 7,000 forged signatures as part of his 21,000-signature total. More than 2,000 more had other issues, including 30 allegedly signed in the names of deceased voters, according to the same complaint.
Craig’s campaign acknowledged earlier this month that his campaign may have submitted invalid signatures.
The “allegation that a handful of circulators defrauded the Craig campaign and Michigan voters is troubling, (but) the proof will ultimately be found in a careful comparison between petition and qualified voter file (or master card) signatures,” an attorney representing the campaign, Edward Greim, told the Detroit Free Press. Greim did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment Monday.
“I’ve been practicing election law in this state since the ‘80s, and I’ve never seen forgery on this scale,” Brewer, the former longtime leader of the state’s Democratic Party, told TPM Monday, before the findings of the investigation were announced.
Another Democratic Party-backed complaint alleged that, among other issues, Johnson’s campaign had submitted at least 66 signatures in the name of dead voters. The campaign appeared to have hired several of the same signature-gatherers that submitted allegedly fraudulent petitions for the Craig campaign, the complaint noted.
In fact, names of a small handful of signature-gatherers appeared on challenged petition sheets submitted across several different campaigns. But it’s not clear at this point whether a single firm is behind the alleged forgeries, whether a group of freelance circulators was hired by several campaigns, or some other explanation.
“There’s no question that these forgers were making a pretty good living working on several different campaigns, doing the same thing over and over again,” Brewer said.
The findings announced Monday don’t automatically disqualify candidates. That decision is up to the four-member Board of State Canvassers. That’s the same body that was subject to then-President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign in 2020, when he attempted to convince the board’s Republicans not to affirm Joe Biden’s victory.
“A candidate may think they’re qualified for the ballot. The question is, are there three members of the board of canvassers that agree with them or not,” said Steven Liedel, the attorney who submitted the complaint against Johnson. “All indications are, it’s going to be a long meeting Thursday.
One Republican board member, Norman Shinkle, abstained from the certification vote in 2020. The other Republican, Aaron Van Langevelde, voted to certify Biden’s win — and was subsequently not renominated to the board by the Republican Party. He was replaced with Tony Daunt.
Daunt told Bridge Michigan earlier this month that, “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.”
Shinkle said then, referring to the circulators accused of forgeries: “I just hope they go to prison so they learn a lesson.”
Read the Bureau of Elections’ report below:
Correction: This article has been corrected to clarify the 2020 certification vote of the Board of State Canvassers.