5 Michigan GOP gov. candidates kicked off ballot amid signature fraud scandal

Legal challenges expected from at least two hopefuls

By: - May 26, 2022 4:06 pm

Board of State Canvassers meeting, May 26, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 5:38 p.m., 5/26/22 with additional comments

It was a long, rainy and often contentious day in Lansing’s Boji Tower for Thursday’s Board of State Canvassers (BSC) meeting.

Hours of often argumentative testimony — mostly from candidates’ attorneys — resulted in the four-member state panel deadlocking on whether to certify the elections of petitions of five GOP gubernatorial candidates touched by alleged signature fraud.

Bureau of Elections report, May 23, 2022

Jeannette Bradshaw, one of the BSC’s two Democrats, questioned during the hearing whether campaigns checked their own petitions before filing them with the state.

“That’s your responsibility. You’re running for office,” Bradshaw said at one point. “You’re relying on a circulator who signs a box stating that they have witnessed every single signature on that petition.

“So if that circulator is not doing their job, isn’t that up to you as well to make sure that you have looked at every petition before you turn those legal documents into the state?”

The BSC — which is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans — deadlocked 2-2 on each vote. That means that financial adviser Michael Markey, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, self-described “quality guru” Perry Johnson and Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown are all rendered ineligible for the Aug. 2 primary ballot.

Markey and Johnson have both already vowed to take the matter to court. Brown exited the race on Tuesday, as the Advance previously reported.

That leaves five GOP candidates on the ballot, as of now: Businessman Kevin Rinke, right-wing media personality Tudor Dixon, chiropractor Garrett Soldano, far-right activist Ryan Kelley and the Rev. Ralph Rebandt.

The winner will square off against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.

The BSC meeting comes after the state Bureau of Elections (BOE) released a report Monday evening that details an “unprecedented” number of fraudulent signatures — tens of thousands of them — that appeared across numerous petitions for office.

The board recommended that the petitions submitted by Markey, Craig, Brandenburg, Johnson and Brown should all be deemed insufficient by the Board of State Canvassers, as enough of their signatures were fraudulent that it put the candidates under the threshold of required valid signatures.

Dixon, who is being backed by the billionaire DeVos family, had signatures that were challenged by Democrats, but ultimately was not stopped from securing the nod from both bodies to get on the ballot.

Dixon filed a total of 29,240 signatures with 29,041 facially valid signatures, easily surpassing the required 15,000.

The petition fraud scandal comes as many Republicans, including several of the GOP gubernatorial candidates, have publicly questioned whether former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 election and spread conspiracy theories about unproven election fraud.

Across 10 petition drives for the 2022 ballot, elections staff on Monday identified 36 petition circulators who submitted fraudulent petition sheets totaling at least 68,000 invalid signatures. Those petition drives included those for governor, circuit judge and district judge.

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

Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Paul Cordes appeared before the canvassing board Thursday to argue, as many of the candidates did, that the BOE “has an obligation to verify the genuineness of each and every signature” on the petitions which it did not do. The board examined samples from candidates’ petitions.

“I don’t refute that systemic fraud occurred,” Cordes said. “But both the law and Secretary [of State Jocelyn] Benson’s own guidance on evaluating the signatures prohibits the wholesale rejection of pages of petitions and tens of thousands of signatures without any review.

“The opposite was done here,” he continued, requesting that the board throw out the state’s recommendations and certify all five of the candidates in question.

State Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), who is married to Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, also testified that the panel should make an exception and discard the BOE’s recommendations by certifying the candidates.

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

Board Chair Norman D. Shinkle, a Republican who is running for the Michigan House, said prior to the final votes that he was “not prepared” to “throw anyone off the ballot.”

Shinkle and fellow Republican Tony Daunt voted to reject the Board of Elections’ recommendations for each of the five candidates, while Vice-Chair Mary Ellen Gurewitz and Bradshaw — both Democrats — voted for solidifying the board’s recommendations by rejecting the petitions.

Daunt said that he wants the courts to ultimately decide.

Tony Daunt, a Republican member of the Board of State Canvassers, speaks to reporters during the panel’s May 25, 2022 meeting | Laina G. Stebbins

The filing deadline for signatures was April 19. Ballots are set to be sent out in mid- and late June.

“It takes three votes to get on the ballot and they didn’t get three votes,” attorney Mark Brewer , a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, told the Advance.

Brewer said the only recourse those candidates have against the vote would be to file a lawsuit against the Board of State Canvassers, likely in the Michigan Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals.

He is dubious that any legal challenges would succeed.

“These candidates have massive amounts of forged signatures, and they are not qualified for the ballot,” Brewer said.

Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Chair Lavora Barnes issued a statement Thursday once again calling for all candidates whose campaigns were touched by the fraudulent signatures to “swiftly withdraw from the race.”

“James Craig, Perry Johnson, and Tudor Dixon, and other Republican candidates for governor made a farce out of Michigan’s electoral system, and today all four members of the Board of Canvassers confirmed that they submitted petitions with extensive fraud and forged signatures,” Barnes said.

“We are disappointed that two members of the Board of Canvassers made admissions that the nominating petitions contained fraudulent and forged signatures, and didn’t vote to keep them off the ballot.”

Here’s the breakdown of the arguments made by GOP gubernatorial candidates:

Michael Brown

No one was present to testify on behalf of Brown, who dropped out of the race on Tuesday following the bureau’s report. Staff had found that out of his 20,900 signatures filed, 13,809 — 66% — were determined to be invalid.

In a tweet, Brown said that his decision to exit the race would stand even if the canvassers decided to certify his petition anyway.

“FYI even if the Board of Canvassers reverses the SOS recommendation my decision to exit the race is final and will not change!” Brown tweeted Thursday.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Brown attends a Republican gubernatorial in Howell on May 13, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Michael Markey Jr.

Markey, who appeared in person on Thursday to testify alongside his attorney, had filed a total of 21,804 signatures. The Board of Elections determined that 17,374 of those were invalid, giving Markey’s petition the highest percentage of invalid signatures with 79%.

Similar to the arguments made by other lawyers, Lansing attorney Garett Koger of Fraser Trebilcock argued on Markey’s behalf that the burden of proving validity of signatures is on the state rather than the campaigns. He claimed the state did not do enough to prove that so many signatures should be tossed out.

Koger also argued that Markey was treated the “most harshly” out of the candidates, even though many of the issues found in other candidates’ petitions were allegedly not on theirs.

Markey also noted that his campaign started collecting signatures early, paid $7 per signature while others paid $20, and determined independently that his signature validity rates were high before submitting the petitions to the state.

“You associated me with fraud. That’s a really, really big accusation,” Markey told the canvassing board and state Elections Director Jonathan Brater.

“This is why normal people do not run. Because I did everything I was supposed to do, I added extra quality controls and then you just assumed that I was like the rest,” Markey said.

Koger suggested that the board let voters decide in August rather than making a contested decision.

Michael Markey, Jr. and his attorney speak before the Board of State Canvassers, May 26, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Donna Brandenburg

The BOE recommended Monday that Brandenburg’s petition be determined as insufficient, as the state received 17,778 signatures from her that included 11,144 that were invalid (63%).

Along with her lawyer, Brandenburg argued that campaigns should have been alerted much earlier than Monday about the widespread signature fraud.

“I am very disturbed at the fact that we were not notified immediately in March,” when the BOE began reviewing signatures, Brandenburg said.

She also claimed that she submitted many more signatures than the BOE reported she did.

“It’s a shame. It’s an assault on the American people on every single level,” Brandenburg said, repeatedly characterizing the process as a “goat rodeo.”

Donna Brandenburg and her attorney speak before the Board of State Canvassers, May 26, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

James Craig

George Lewis, a lawyer for Craig, claimed that he knows only a handful of the total number of signatures thrown out from his petition that were checked against the qualified voter file (QVF).

The BOE found that out of Craig’s 21,305 submitted signatures, about 52% — 11,113 signatures — were invalid.

Lewis claimed that the methodology used by the BOE to determine how many signatures to throw out violated election law, which was rebuffed by Brader and members of the board. He said if all of the signatures cannot be checked individually, the “only remedy” would be to put the candidate back on the ballot.

Gurewitz pushed back, refuting the idea that submitting too many signatures to count individually should equal a green light from the state.

“So we have to do the work that you didn’t do, is that correct?” Gurewitz asked Lewis.

Brewer added that it is Craig’s responsibility to demonstrate that the signatures aren’t fraudulent, not the state’s, and if exceptions are made then Michigan will be seen as “fair game” for signature fraud.

Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig speaks to reporters at the Michigan Economic Developers Association’s (MEDA) annual “Capitol Day” at the Lansing Center, March 3, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

Perry Johnson

Johnson, the self-proclaimed “quality guru,” filed a total of 23,193 signatures to the BOE. The board determined that 9,393, or 40% of those were invalid.

Attorney Jason Torchinsky pushed back on the BOE’s findings, arguing that staff used a “broad brush” to jump to conclusions about many of the signatures. He also said that without a line-by-line signature disqualification, the Board of State Canvassers cannot disqualify enough signatures to disqualify Johnson.

Brader said that there is nothing in Michigan election law that requires individual signature verification in this case.

Like other attorneys, Torchinsky also complained about the lack of notice between Monday evening’s bombshell BOE report and the meeting Thursday morning. He also made clear that Johnson plans to take the matter to court if his petition is not certified.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson holds a campaign kick-off event in Lansing on Feb. 23, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

About 6,000 signatures on Johnson’s petition were challenged by Carol Bray of Haslett, who is represented by Steven Liedel. Liedel explained Thursday that campaigns are responsible for the consequences of the “irrefutable mass fraud and forgery.”

“Candidates and their campaigns are accountable, under the plain text of the Michigan election law, for the actions of their own campaigns,” Liedel said. “…Outsourcing signature collection does not outsource the burden of personal responsibility.”

The fact that so many campaigns were kneecapped due to large-scale signature fraud denotes “incompetence, negligence, dysfunction and a lack of leadership,” he added.

Playing off of Johnson’s self-described title as the “quality guru,” Liedel thanked the Board of Elections staff for their “quality” work identifying the fraud.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. 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. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).

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