State elections report: James Craig and Perry Johnson filed too few signatures for ballot

·6 min read

LANSING — Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, once the consensus front-runner in the Republican race for governor, has not filed enough valid signatures to make the August primary ballot, according to a report released late Monday by the Bureau of Elections.

It's a bombshell setback for what has been seen as a faltering Craig campaign. The bureau reports on Craig and other GOP candidates — which cite widespread forgery of signatures by multiple signature gatherers — could cut the crowded Republican field of 10 candidates in half.

The winner of the Aug. 2 Republican primary faces Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in the November general election.

"The collapse of the James Craig campaign ... likely is the greatest in Michigan history," said John Sellek, a Republican political consultant who was a top aide to former Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette.

In this Oct. 19, 2018 photo, Detroit Police Chief James Craig addresses reporters in Detroit.
In this Oct. 19, 2018 photo, Detroit Police Chief James Craig addresses reporters in Detroit.

The reports also say that Oakland County businessman and "quality guru" Perry Johnson did not file enough valid signatures, but they clear Norton Shores businesswoman Tudor Dixon, whose petitions were also the subject of a complaint.

But the reports go further, recommending that Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, Byron Center businesswoman Donna Brandenburg and Grand Haven financial adviser Michael Markey also be excluded from the ballot for having too few signatures.

The reports now go to a Thursday meeting of the Board of State Canvassers for rulings. The four-member board has two Democratic members and two Republican ones.

Candidates for governor must submit at least 15,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Of the 21,205 signatures Craig submitted, only 10,192 appear to be valid, according to an elections staff report. Of the 23,193 signatures submitted by Johnson, only 13,800 appear valid, according to another staff report.

Regardless of what the board decides, criminal investigations and possible charges against certain signature collectors are possible, according to the reports. Craig, Johnson and other affected candidates have said they are victims of fraud, not perpetrators. The bureau does not currently "have reason to believe that any specific candidates or campaigns were aware of the activities of fraudulent-petition circulators," according to the staff reports.

At the same time, experts say there is an onus on candidates and campaigns to perform a level of due diligence by vetting the signatures they submit.

A spokesman for Craig could not immediately be reached for comment Monday night.

But John Yob, a Grand Rapids-based political consultant and spokesman for Johnson, who has also been regarded as a top-tier candidate, said his campaign will fight the recommendation.

The Bureau of Elections "does not have the right to unilaterally void every single signature obtained by the alleged forgers who victimized five campaigns," Yob said. "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."

An investigation by the bureau found at least 36 petition circulators submitted at least 68,000 fraudulent signatures across at least 10 nominating petitions — not all of them petitions for governor.

"Because of the pervasiveness of fraudulent petition sheets and the fact that sheets submitted by the same circulators affected multiple candidates, staff have prepared an omnibus report documenting the detection of, and staff response to, these petition sheets," the bureau said in a report.

"The extent to which each candidate’s ballot qualification is affected by these circulators is proportional to the number and percentage of these circulator sheets in the candidate’s nominating petition submission."

More: Michigan's primary ballot may be 'disaster' for GOP candidates for governor, expert says

More: Michigan's DeVos family throws its support behind Tudor Dixon for governor

Appearing to be safely on the ballot along with Dixon, and suddenly in much stronger positions, are:Ottawa County real estate agent Ryan Kelley; Farmington Hills pastor Ralph Rebandt; Bloomfield Hills businessman Kevin Rinke, and Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano. Nobody challenged the validity of the signatures they filed and the bureau report did not identify problems sufficient to disqualify them.

It appears certain petition circulators used outdated voter lists as the basis for their forged signatures, resulting in many dead voters turning up on the submitted sheets and others with outdated addresses, according to the reports.

Some sheets appeared "round-tabled" — a practice in which a group of individuals passes around sheets, with each person signing one line on each sheet "in an attempt to make the handwriting and signatures appear authentic and received from actual voters," according to the reports.

Bureau staff even found two identical petition sheets submitted for two different judicial candidates.

Brown's campaign manager, David Yardley, said the campaign was not notified of any problems until Monday night, but it appears the bureau "is disqualifying every signature from certain circulators whether valid or invalid."

Petitions filed by Craig, Johnson and Dixon were all challenged in complaints filed in late April.

Craig's signatures faced two challenges — one from a Michigan resident represented by lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, and another from Michigan Strong PAC, a conservative group supporting Dixon's campaign.

The complaint filed by Brewer alleged that of the signatures Craig filed, nearly 7,000 were forged, over 300 were duplicates, nearly 200 came from nonregistered voters, 30 came from deceased voters and nearly 2,000 were otherwise defective. As a result, Craig failed to file sufficient signatures to appear on the August primary ballot, the complaint alleged.

The complaint from Michigan Strong PAC also alleged that Craig collected signatures from unregistered voters and engaged in other fraudulent activity.

On the day of the filing deadline, the Craig campaign attempted to file about 4,000 more signatures, on top of those he had filed earlier that day. But the 4 p.m. deadline had passed and the additional signatures were not accepted.

A complaint against Dixon from a Michigan resident represented by Steve Liedel, former legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, alleges that her campaign misled voters. Dixon's petition states that she is running for a term that expires in 2026, when in fact the four-year term expires on Jan. 1, 2027.

The complaint against Johnson filed by Liedel on behalf of another Michigan resident alleges that his campaign filed petitions with "extensive irregularities, including signatures from dead people, apparent forgeries, extensive signature errors, a high number of duplicate signatures, numerous address and jurisdictional issues, and the use of many of the same petition circulators in apparent illicit petition activities."

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Report: James Craig and Perry Johnson filed too few signatures for governor