LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan's elections bureau said late Monday that five Republican candidates for governor, including two leading contenders, failed to file enough valid nominating signatures and should not qualify for the August primary.
The stunning recommendations immediately transformed the race in the battleground state and dealt a major blow to former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who has led in primary polling despite campaign problems, and businessman Perry Johnson, who has spent millions of his own money to run. Democrats had challenged their petitions, alleging mass forgery and other issues. Another GOP candidate, Tudor Dixon, had also contested Craig's voter signatures as fake.
The bipartisan, four-member Board of State Canvassers will meet Thursday to consider the elections bureau's findings of fraud across five gubernatorial campaigns. The Republican candidates, who are vying to face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November, could end up going to court if they do not make the ballot.
Bureau staff also determined that three other lesser-known GOP candidates — Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey — did not turn in enough valid signatures.
If the canvassers agree with the recommendations, the 10-person field of political newcomers would be cut in half to five. Those qualifying for the ballot would be Dixon, a former conservative TV news host who netted the DeVos family endorsement earlier Monday; chiropractor and grassroots activist Garrett Soldano; wealthy self-funding businessman Kevin Rinke; real estate broker and anti-coronavirus lockdown activist Ryan Kelley; and pastor Ralph Rebandt.
The bureau said Craig submitted 10,192 valid signatures — well short of the 15,000 needed. It tossed 11,113 signatures, including 9,879 that were allegedly fraudulently collected by 18 paid circulators. The agency found evidence of consistent handwriting across all signatures on individual petition sheets and of "round-tabling," where circulators took turns signing a line on each sheet in an effort to vary handwriting and make signatures appear authentic.
Johnson turned in 13,800 valid signatures, according to staff. They tossed 9,393, including 6,983 that they said are fraudulent and were gathered by many of the same people who also forged signatures that Craig submitted.
The bureau said it discovered the fraud on its own review and did not process the challenges filed by the Michigan Democratic Party and Dixon. It also uncovered more than 42,000 bogus signatures that were collected for Brandenburg, Brown and Markey. The agency dismissed a challenge to Dixon brought by Democrats, who said the heading on her petition wrongly listed the end of the next gubernatorial term as 2026, when it is Jan. 1, 2027.
A message seeking comment was left with Craig's campaign late Monday.
Johnson, a self-proclaimed "quality guru," vowed to fight the recommendation from the bureau, which is part of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's department.
"The staff of the Democrat secretary of state does not have the right to unilaterally void every single signature obtained by the alleged forgers who victimized five campaigns," campaign consultant John Yob said in a statement. "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."
The bureau said it was working to refer the fraud to law enforcement for criminal investigation.
"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," staff wrote.
The bureau identified 36 circulators who submitted sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures across at least 10 campaigns, including for governor and local judgeships. Staff did not flag a reason for the fraud but noted the difficulty securing circulators and signatures for campaigns and ballot initiatives nationwide during the pandemic. Circulators often are paid per signature.
Staff identified an unusually large number of sheets with every signature line completed or that showed no normal wear such as folds, scuffing or minor damage from rain. They flagged sheets on which handwriting of certain letters across different signatures and information was near identical. Staff also reported an unusually high number of signatures corresponding to dead voters and to addresses where living voters no longer live.
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