Five Republican candidates for governor in Michigan — including top-tier contenders James Craig and Perry Johnson — failed to qualify for the August primary Thursday after the Board of State Canvassers rejected their nominating petitions because of alleged rampant signature fraud.
The bipartisan panel, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, deadlocked 2-2 along party lines in accepting recommendations by the state Elections Bureau to disqualify all five. A majority was required to keep a candidate on the ballot.
State officials charged with reviewing the nominating petitions this week declared thousands of signatures submitted by the candidates to be forgeries submitted by fraudulent petition circulators. Their findings, which the board considered Thursday, left the five candidates short of the 15,000 valid signatures required to qualify for the ballot.
Thursday's result is expected to be challenged in court. The state's director of elections said the issue needs to be decided by June 3 to leave time to prepare ballots.
The developments could trigger a colossal shakeup in the race for governor, which Republicans are heavily targeting in hope of unseating Democratic incumbent Gretchen Whitmer. If the board's decision stands, an initial field of 10 GOP candidates would be cut in half, without two of its most viable candidates: Craig, a former Detroit police chief who has led in recent polls, and Johnson, a businessman who promotes himself as a "quality guru" and had planned to self-fund his campaign.
"We are disappointed in the Board of Canvassers decision, but we are not surprised the partisan Democrats on the committee ruled against Michigan voters," Craig said in a statement. "It is a travesty that partisans in a position to uphold democracy and the will of the people allowed politics to get in the way."
Craig added that he plans to file "an immediate appeal in the courts."
A representative for Johnson's campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The board vote Thursday also rejected petitions from Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey.
To get on the primary ballot for governor in Michigan, candidates needed to submit a minimum of 15,000 signatures from registered voters, including at least 100 voters in half of the state’s 14 congressional districts, by the April 19 deadline. Democrats challenged the petitions of several Republican candidates and alleged widespread forgery a week later.
State Elections Director Jonathan Brater said the state’s subsequent review of qualifying petitions filed by many candidates found an “unprecedented” level of fraud.
The Elections Bureau concluded that 36 petition circulators submitted 68,000 invalid signatures in nominating petitions this year, forging the signatures of registered and unregistered voters alike in bulk. The petition circulators, who were paid by the signature, were frequently hired by multiple Republican candidates.
"The circulators here committed fraud," Brater said. "This was not a mistake, these circulators knew they were doing this, they did this deliberately, and staff is confident in saying these signatures should not be counted."
Mark Brewer, a lawyer working for the Michigan Democratic Party who led the weeklong investigation into and formal complaint against Craig's petitions, argued that the forgeries were obvious and that the state should have a zero-tolerance policy for such fraudulent behavior.
Following the allegations of fraud, the Elections Bureau conducted a comprehensive review and said Monday evening that the five Republicans were short of the requisite number of signatures.
Nearly half of Craig’s submitted signatures and just over 40 percent of Johnson’s were deemed invalid in large part because of fraud, the bureau said in reports detailing its review of each candidate’s petitions.
Brown withdrew from the race this week. At Thursday's contentious hearing, the four other candidates — in person or through staff members — protested the state's review process and argued their candidates shouldn’t be kept off the ballot.
George Lewis, an attorney for Craig, argued that the state disqualified signatures that appeared fraudulent without checking each signature against the state's voter file.
"We ask that Chief Craig's name be put back on the ballot for August primary, or if there's time, which I don't think there is today, for a thorough and legal review of all these signatures be done," he said. "We don't think there's time for that. I think the only remedy available at this point is to put their names back on the ballot."
Tony Daunt, a Republican member of the board, was sympathetic to that argument.
“Without question, a widespread and disgraceful effort to defraud the voters of the state has occurred,” said Daunt, who said he believed the signatures required more investigation. “The burden of proof, however, to deprive citizens of their rights is wholly the responsibility of the government.”
Mary Ellen Gurewitz, the board's Democratic vice chair, rejected that idea.
"For them to come in and say, 'Well, there are just too many to be checked and therefore you have to accept them,' that is unacceptable in my estimation," Gurewitz said before she voted to disqualify James and the four others. "I think that we have to rely upon and respect, because it's sound, the recommendation of the bureau with regard to this particular challenge to candidates."