Massive signature fraud scandal upends Michigan GOP gubernatorial race

Bureau of Elections recommends half of candidates should be kicked off the ballot

By: - May 24, 2022 8:51 am

GOP gubernatorial candidates the Bureau of Elections recommended to remove from the ballot (clockwise): James Craig, Michael Brown, Donna Brandenburg, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey

The state Bureau of Elections has recommended that five of the 10 Republican candidates hoping to oust Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should be kicked off the ballot prior to the Aug. 2 primary due to tens of thousands of forged signatures.

In total, elections staff identified 36 individual petition circulators who submitted fraudulent petition sheets with invalid signatures in at least 10 petition drives — submitting at least 68,000 invalid signatures total. Those petition drives included those for governor, circuit judge and district judge.

Staff are working to refer incidents of apparent fraud to law enforcement for criminal investigation.

Bureau of Elections report, May 23, 2022

This comes after many Republicans — including many in the GOP gubernatorial field — have questioned whether former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, despite President Joe Biden winning by more than 154,000 votes in Michigan. Many have spread conspiracy theories about unproven election fraud.

The bureau’s unprecedented report Monday night has already prompted at least one candidate, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, to formally withdraw from the race.

“It appears that after my campaign’s signature gathering was complete, individuals independently contracted for a portion of our signature gathering and validation jumped onto other campaigns and went on a money grab,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday morning, after his campaign manager initially contested the report the night before.

“I cannot and will not be associated with this activity. … I will exit the race for Michigan’s Governor with my integrity and this principle intact,” Brown said.

Brown, as well as financial adviser Michael Markey, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg and self-described “quality guru” Perry Johnson, all had signatures that the bureau recommended to be deemed insufficient as many were fraudulent. 

Craig’s signatures had been challenged by Democrats and a superPAC supporting right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon. Democrats also challenged Johnson’s petitions.

The bureau OK’d petitions for Dixon, who is being backed by the billionaire DeVos family and had signatures that also were challenged by Democrats. Businessman Kevin Rinke, chiropractor Garrett Soldano, far-right activist Ryan Kelley and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt were the only other candidates to have their petitions recommended as sufficient.

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers — which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — is set to meet and take up the recommendations Thursday morning in what’s expected to be a contentious meeting in Lansing.

A Livingston County GOP debate earlier this month featured eight of the 10 candidates, with Craig and Brandenburg not attending. During a lightning round, hopefuls were asked if they “believe Donald Trump legitimately won the 2020 election.” Dixon, Kelley, Johnson, Rebandt and Soldano all said that he did.

Rinke and Johnson declined to answer with a simple yes or no, eliciting boos from the audience. Brown and Markey directly said he did not win the election.

The filing deadline for the signatures was April 19. The bureau said staff began to review nominating petitions at the end of March, and discovered early on that a large number of petition sheets submitted by certain circulators appeared fraudulent. Some consisted entirely of forged or otherwise invalid signatures.

GOP gubernatorial candidates the Bureau of Elections said had enough signatures (clockwise): Garrett Soldano, Kevin Rinke, Ryan Kelley, Tudor Dixon and Ralph Rebandt,

Because of this, the bureau took on a more intensive process of review and released a supplemental report on the fraudulent activity Monday night.

Previously, signatures of dubious authenticity have been “scattered throughout petitions and relatively small in number.” 

“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, nor an instance in which it affected as many candidate petitions as at present,” the bureau’s report reads.

Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Chair Lavora Barnes issued a statement Tuesday morning calling for all candidates whose campaigns were touched by the fraud, including Dixon, to drop out.

“Their refusal to adhere to Michigan election law is disqualifying,” Barnes said. “If they refuse to withdraw, the Board of Canvassers should … [refuse] to certify these candidates. Michigan families deserve better than an irresponsible, radical slate of candidates who have repeatedly refused accountability for their lawless campaigns.”

The bureau noted in the report that there is currently no reason to believe that any of the candidates or campaigns were aware of the fraudulent activity. It went on to recommend that candidates and campaigns implement a quality control process prior to filing petitions.

A number of nominations for circuit judges, district judges and congressional races were also deemed insufficient. Paul Junge and state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), Republicans who are both running for the U.S. House, cleared the elections bureau hurdle and are recommended as having sufficient petitions.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.