Why several Republican candidates for Michigan governor were blocked from the ballot
Several Republican candidates for governor of Michigan, including some of the party's top hopefuls, have been blocked from the primary ballot after signatures the candidates submitted included alleged forgeries.
The five GOP candidates have said they were unaware of any problems with their signatures, and most are pursuing legal avenues to get on the Aug. 2 ballot.
The developments have upended the race to lead a key swing state.
Here's how we got here:
Challenges raised in April
April 19 was the deadline for Michigan candidates for various offices to submit their filing paperwork with the secretary of state to appear on the primary ballot.
With their filing paperwork, candidates also had to turn in a certain number of valid signatures. Those running for governor had to submit a minimum of 15,000 signatures — and a maximum of 30,000. That way, they'd have a cushion in case the Board of State Canvassers, an independent and bipartisan group with members appointed by the governor, determined not every signature submitted was valid.
The Republican field for governor initially had 10 candidates, and voters can only sign one campaign's nominating petition. Like in past cycles, campaigns adapted by using a mix of volunteer and paid petition circulators, or signature gatherers.
Within seven days of the filing deadline, the Board of State Canvassers or a county clerk can receive challenges to the nominating petitions.
"It's always prudent to look at [other candidates' signatures]. Until you look at them, you don't know whether it's worth taking a deeper look or not. At least flip through them," consultant John Yob told reporters after filing signatures with Republican gubernatorial hopeful Perry Johnson.
Nearly 30 candidates for offices ranging from U.S. House to a circuit court judgeship eventually faced a challenge by the time that period ended on April 26.
Notably, the Michigan Democratic Party targeted three of the Republicans running for governor: businessman Johnson, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and businesswoman Tudor Dixon.
Democrats alleged evidence of rampant signature fraud in the nominating petitions for Craig and Johnson, and they also argued that Dixon's campaign had signature fraud and that her forms listed an incorrect date.
"You don't see clean petitions with 10 names. No cross-outs, every sheet completed — you know, that's just not the way this works. People make mistakes, they cross things out, you get incomplete sheets," attorney Mark Brewer, a former state Democratic Party chair, said at a press conference.
Report alleges widespread fraud
The Board of State Canvassers agreed to evaluate the candidacy challenges.
Ahead of that, on May 23, the state Bureau of Elections published a report that claimed that 36 individual paid circulators faked thousands of signatures to take advantage of a payout that reached as high as $20 per signature on average.
"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," the report stated.
Issues included accusations of a practice known as "round robin-ing." That's when circulators take turns signing a petition with names from a list, sometimes switching pen colors. Other times, circulators allegedly turned in similar signature sheets for multiple campaigns.
The signature gatherers had worked across several campaigns. The state attorney general's office is looking into possibly pressing charges against them.
The Bureau of Elections report noted it "does not have reason to believe that any specific candidates or campaigns were aware of the activities of fraudulent-petition circulators," but after throwing out sheets of signatures from the circulators, the bureau found many candidates fell below the required threshold to run for office.
Those included GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Craig and Johnson. Dixon survived her challenges. Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown ended his campaign rather than associate his candidacy with signature fraud.
Concerns over the process
The Bureau of Elections report was sent to the Board of State Canvassers, which, during an eight-hour meeting on May 26, deadlocked on how to handle the affected campaigns for governor.
The two Democratic members of the board voted against allowing the candidates ballot access. The two Republican members voted the opposite way, taking issue with the practice of throwing out sheets of signatures turned in by suspected fraudsters rather than checking every petition sheet line-by-line.
The tie meant that the candidates were to be blocked from the primary ballot.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan group focused on upholding democracy, shared concerns over whether the process was rushed.
"This action is unprecedented, with challengers finding out about their alleged indiscretions just days before pleading their cases to the Board of Canvassers," Quentin Turner, Common Cause Michigan's policy director, said in a statement.
Candidates so far unsuccessful in court
Michigan's Democratic secretary of state is set to certify eligible candidates by Friday, as some blocked candidates have sued to try to get their names on primary ballots.
But on Wednesday, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected lawsuits from Johnson and fellow gubernatorial candidate Michael Markey, a financial adviser. Markey pledged to take his fight to the state Supreme Court.
"The voters should be deciding who their candidates are, not an unelected board of government bureaucrats," he said in a statement.
If all else fails, running as a write-in candidate is an option for both the primary and general elections.
What's at stake
Michigan is a battleground state with conservatives both in the state and nationwide taking an interest in unseating incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Democrat has repeatedly sparred with the Republican-led state legislature across her tenure so far.
Regardless of pending litigation, Whitmer will take on a relative political newcomer as the Republican nominee.
Despite reported turmoil within the Craig campaign and Johnson's late entry into the race, both appeared in relatively strong positions before last week's developments.
The DeVos family, a heavyweight in Michigan conservative politics, has endorsed Dixon for governor. Any benefits of a DeVos bump, however, haven't yet been seen. In a recent polling, Dixon remained behind.
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