The state of Michigan is in the midst of unwinding the biggest signature forgery scandal in recent memory: The state Bureau of Elections determined earlier this week that half of the 10 Republicans running for governor had submitted thousands of fraudulent signatures in their effort to qualify to appear on the Aug. 2 primary ballot.
But ahead of a Thursday meeting to determine who will actually appear on the ballot, some Republicans are casting themselves as victims of money-grubbing signature gatherers and conniving Democrats. They plan to fight any decision to keep them off the ballot.
Perry Johnson, a leading GOP gubernatorial contender, blamed “criminals” for his troubles, saying in a statement that unscrupulous signature-gatherers can harm campaigns “by purposely infiltrating a victimized campaign with illegitimate signatures in a machiavellian attempt by the opposing party to later have them removed from the ballot.”
Candidates for governor need to submit 15,000 valid signatures to appear on the primary ballot. To reach that number, they often hire a firm or individuals, called petition circulators, to collect signatures. Now, the Michigan Bureau of Elections has found that multiple candidates in this year’s state elections hired a group of petition circulators that submitted, in total, nearly 70,000 forged or otherwise invalid signatures.
Johnson, a businessman who refers to himself as a “quality guru,” submitted more than 9,000 signatures collected by the petition circulators in question. Without those suspect signatures, Johnson had only 13,800 — falling short of the 15,000 needed.
On Thursday, the Board of State Canvassers will determine whether candidates like Johnson, who lack enough valid signatures, should be kept from the ballot.
James Craig, the former police chief in Detroit and another frontrunner now endangered by more than 11,000 invalid signatures, said his campaign had been “defrauded” by petition circulators. Michigan’s Republican Party chair accused Democrats of “actively angling behind the scenes to disqualify their opponents” — seemingly referring to complaints about the fishy signatures filed with the state by attorneys affiliated with the Democratic Party.
But the fraud in question wasn’t exactly subtle. Mary Ellen Gurewitz, the vice chair of the Board of State Canvassers, was reading a media report about the suspect signatures when she spotted the name of a former client of hers on a petition sheet, according to Steve Liedel, a Democratic Party-affiliated attorney who submitted a complaint about Johnson’s signatures. Gurewitz called the former client, who confirmed it was a forgery, Liedel said.
Another of Johnson’s forged signatures belonged to an employee at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office.
It will take three out of four votes at Thursday’s state Board of Canvassers meeting for each candidate to make the ballot. If the Board heeds the Election Bureau’s advice and keeps the tainted candidates off the ballot, they could sue. “Some of these candidates will be on the ballot once this goes to court,” the Michigan GOP co-chair pledged Tuesday.
What Does The Law Say?
But the legal forecast, at this point, is far from hopeful for Republicans: Michigan law puts the onus on candidates to verify the legitimacy of the signatures they submit, even if — as is currently the case — there’s no evidence that they knowingly submitted fraudulent petition sheets.
One campaign consultant for Johnson, John Yob, has focused on the method state elections staffers used to sift through bad signatures: Because tens of thousands of signatures were suspected of being fraudulent across multiple campaigns, the Bureau said, staff spot-checked signatures across all of the petition sheets deemed suspect — confirming every time that the signatures they checked were fraudulent.
In a tweet, Yob quoted a snippet of Michigan law: “The invalidity of 1 or more signatures on a petition does not affect the validity of the remainder of the signatures on the petition.”
Mark Brewer, Michigan’s former Democratic Party chair and one of the people to challenge Craig’s signatures, quoted another section to TPM: The law states that if an individual is found to have violated the signature-gathering rules, the board may “Disqualify obviously fraudulent signatures,” even without checking them against registration records.
“The board has the statutory authority to disqualify signatures and candidates without doing a signature-by-signature review,” he said. “Every signature that was checked was a forgery, and the Bureau appears to have checked thousands of them. The pattern is very clear here.”
The Republican candidates’ inexperience, combined with the extremely crowded field and the impact of COVID-19, meant that signature gatherers were in high demand, apparently giving a few individuals the opportunity to engage in a massive fraud operation, said Mark Grebner, a commissioner in Ingham County and a political consultant known for maintaining a massive list of Michigan voters for campaigns’ use.
Grebner, who himself works on petition campaigns and was an affiant in multiple complaints this year, told TPM that sorting out the suspect petition sheets is “very much an art” at first: Reviewers look for patterns — say, a repeated misspelling of a city’s name every three pages. This year, he said, identifying fraudulent signatures against voters’ real signatures on file with the state was “like shooting fish in a barrel.”
That’s not to say Grebner doesn’t have some sympathy for the Republican candidates: After reading the names of 36 circulators identified by the state as responsible for fraudulent signatures, Grebner realized he had 2,000 petition sheets submitted by some of the same freelancers at his own office, for a ballot initiative job on which he was subcontracted to help. Those sheets accounted for roughly 17,000 signatures in all, he said. Grebner made sure they’re stored in a bankers box labeled with red ink: “DO NOT FILE.”
“Every single signature I’ve checked has been totally wrong,” he said of those sheets.
Some Republicans Dismiss Sob Stories
Some Republicans — namely, competitors to those endangered candidates — appear ready to leave half of the gubernatorial field off of the ballot.
Among them are supporters of Tudor Dixon, a DeVos-endorsed gubernatorial candidate who’s now enjoying a new wind near the front of the GOP pack. Fred Wszolek, a spokesperson for a super PAC supporting Dixon said before the state’s report was published that “the combination of incompetence, invalidity, unregistered voters and apparent fraud” had likely doomed the campaign of Craig, Dixon’s primary competitor.
The pro-Dixon super PAC filed a complaint with the state alleging fraud in Craig’s signatures. After the state report affirmed that allegation, Wszolek said it was “time to unite” behind Dixon.
Jamie Roe, a consultant for GOP gubernatorial candidate Kevin Rinke, told Bridge Michigan Tuesday that it was “dumbfounding that the campaigns let this stuff get through.”
“You have to have quality control,” Roe said. “The fact that the ‘quality guru’ is one of them is just amazing.”
The Board of State Canvassers meeting will begin at 9 a.m. Thursday and will be livestreamed online. It will include three-minute slots for members of the public to speak. The board will consider the ballot qualifications of candidates at every level, from local judgeships to congressional and gubernatorial candidates.