Sen. Jon Bumstead at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull
A state senator from West Michigan, who made election integrity a key issue in his reelection campaign, is under criminal investigation after allegations of signature fraud were made against him in late 2016, the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has confirmed.
On Nov. 7, 2016, Clerk Jennifer Badgero in Newaygo County’s Brooks Township filed a report with Michigan State Police alleging state Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo) forged absentee ballots at least twice. Badgero is also a Republican.
While the name of the individual making the complaint was whited out in a copy of the state police report obtained by the Michigan Advance, the fact that it was the Brooks Township clerk was not. When contacted, Badgero confirmed to the Advance that she did make the complaint.
Bumstead won reelection Nov. 8 when he defeated state Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon). Requests for comment were made to Bumstead’s office, but were not returned.
Badgero, who has been the clerk in Brooks Township since 2007, said her first encounter with Bumstead over absentee ballots was in 2010 when he was running for state representative. She said she questioned the signature on the absentee ballot of his daughter, Jona Bumstead, as it did not appear to match the one that was on file.
“I called him and said, ‘Hey, I don’t think the signature matches on this,’” Badgero recalls telling him. “‘It needs to match by election day in order for it to be counted.’ And he says, ‘Oh, my ex-wife must have signed it.’ I gave her [Bumstead’s daughter] a new ballot, and that came back with her signature.”
Badgero said in August 2016, she received an absentee ballot from Bumstead’s daughter, but again noticed it did not look like her signature.
“It clearly looks like his writing to me,” she said. “So at that point in time, I pulled his voter card, her voter card and made a copy of both of them.”
Badgero said she then invalidated the ballot, and while she reluctantly decided not to make an official complaint at that point, she retained the ballot still sealed in the envelope the way it had been returned to her.
“Then it happened again in November  that her ballot was returned with what appeared to be his writing,” she said.
Badgero said she did some investigating and found multiple Facebook posts that indicated Jona Bumstead was in Florida at the time the absentee ballot was mailed out and returned.
A message was sent to Jona Bumstead asking for comment, but was not returned.
Badgero said that when Sen. Bumstead later came into her office to pick up his absentee ballot, he said he was going to go see his daughter in Florida. Badgero said that was when she decided to contact the police.
“I just hemmed and hawed, but I lost sleep over it because it’s just not OK,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking to walk into a State Police post with this information,” she said, noting Bumstead was a public figure in a small community and from her own party.
Badgero said she specifically chose to go to the Michigan State Police Post in Rockford because it was outside of Newaygo County and she was concerned about a potential conflict of interest. Robert Springstead was the Newaygo County prosecutor at the time and had also been chair of the Newaygo County Republican Party.
“I just wasn’t confident in what would happen in Newaygo County or what the repercussions for me would be in Newaygo County,” she said.
Badgero said she relayed the details of what had occurred and provided investigators with copies of the invalidated ballots and signature cards, as well as screenshots of the Facebook posts.
“Bumstead replied she lives in Tampa with her boyfriend and she moved there a little while ago, as her boyfriend had a business opportunity,” said the state police report.
The police indicated they were looking at the case as a forgery investigation, Badgero said.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s not forgery, it’s election fraud.’ I mean, that’s a different thing,” she said.
Badgero noted that rejecting an absentee ballot due to a signature mismatch is a fairly rare occurrence.
“I have rejected five ballots in 15 years, and three of them were related to this,” she said. “Most of the time there’s a reasonable explanation for it. So one example of another voter that I have, I got an application for a ballot, and I was like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t even look anywhere close.’ Well, he’s had a stroke and he’s in a wheelchair, so his driver’s license signature no longer matches what he’s capable of signing.”
Badgero said investigators told her they would request the report be sent to the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office, but she never heard from them, or any other official, about the matter.
Newaygo County Prosecutor Worth Stay, who was not in office at the time, confirmed for the Advance that a report was submitted in mid-March of 2017.
“My office requested a special prosecutor from the AG, who appointed the Kent County Prosecutor as special prosecutor, I have that date as 3/22/2017,” he said.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request sent to the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office returned a single email, dated April 10, 2017, from Prosecutor Christopher Becker to Stay, along with representatives from the AG’s office and MSP.
Becker said after reviewing the complaint against Bumstead, and after speaking with his appellate staff, it was their opinion that no crime was committed and they would not be issuing any charges.
“The key language we based this decision on was, “a person who forges a signature…” Case law and the forgery statutes require an intent to defraud,” noted Becker in the email. “There is no intent to defraud here. He is simply attempting to assist his daughter in filling out an absentee ballot when she is unable to and doing so at her direction. The proper thing happened when the ballot was to be counted, it was invalidated, but this does not make it a crime.”
Becker said the AG’s office was contacted for guidance and they had never heard of a similar case “being treated in a criminal fashion.” He also noted that the Secretary of State’s office had failed to respond to requests for its input.
At the time, the office was run by Ruth Johnson, who has since become a Republican state senator from Holly.
However, when the Advance contacted the SOS for a comment on the rationale for declining prosecution back in 2017, Jake Rollow, the chief external affairs officer for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, responded by saying, “We decline to comment due to the pending criminal investigation.”
When asked directly if there was a pending investigation, Rollow said, “I can’t comment due to the pending investigation.”
Shanon Banner, manager of the MSP Public Affairs Section said, “As a matter of practice, the MSP does not confirm nor deny the presence of criminal investigations.”
While the Michigan Attorney General’s Office also declined to comment on the Bumstead allegations, Communications Director Amber McCann pointed the Advance to an online recap of cases that Attorney General Dana Nessel pursued following the 2020 Election.
One of those cases involved the January 2021 plea by a Canton Township man accused of forging his daughter’s signature on an absentee voter ballot.
Paul Parana was originally charged with impersonating a voter, a four-year felony, and election law forgery, a five-year felony. He ended up pleading guilty to a 90-day misdemeanor election law violation and was sentenced to 90 days probation and ordered to pay court costs and fees of roughly $1,100 in Wayne County Circuit Court.
“While voter fraud rarely occurs, we are vigilant in pursuing such activity when it does,” Nessel said at the time. “This is an example of how my office reviews legitimate claims of voter fraud to discover the facts and prosecute according to the law.”
Badgero said she still believes Bumstead should face consequences.
“He should have been prosecuted,” she said. “He should not be in public office at this point in time.”
Badgero said she isn’t focused on the potential backlash for speaking out against a prominent member of her own party.
“Should I be worried about doing my job? No, I shouldn’t,” she said. “I came to the conclusion that if I was going to get persecuted for doing what was right in the first place six years ago, so be it. Because I’ve done my job for 15 years and it’s stuff like this that makes people not want to do it.”
Sabo, who lost to Bumstead on Nov. 8, provided a statement about the MSP report on Bumstead to the Advance prior to the election.
“We applaud Clerk Badgero for standing up for what’s right and protecting the security of our election process,” said Sabo. “Most clerks want to do the right thing and want the results to be accurate and above approach. I personally find it ironic for Jon Bumstead to be questioning votes and the integrity of elections through his bill sponsorships when he himself has allegedly committed election fraud.”
Sabo noted that Bumstead has supported voting restrictions. His Senate webpage places the issue of Election Reforms right at the top, in which he promotes the Michigan Senate GOP Election Integrity package. That package includes restrictions to absentee ballot boxes, including a prohibition on voters using a drop box after 5 p.m. the day before the election, as well as strict Voter ID requirements, both for absentee ballot applications and in-person voting.
Many of the proposed reforms mirror those found in the GOP-backed Secure MI Vote initiative, which would restrict voter access. Proposal 2, which was easily approved by voters on Nov. 8, would essentially invalidate those restrictions.
Bumstead was also criticized last year by Benson for using taxpayer funds on a mailer to residents she said was “misrepresenting several election bills” and would “make it more difficult for eligible citizens to vote.”
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