Republican frontrunners for governor were rocked by a forgery scandal that forced them out of the race.
Need to Know
- Paid signature gatherers forged nearly 70,000 invalid signatures on petitions to get Republican candidates on the ballot.
- James Craig, Perry Johnson, and three others were implicated in the scandal. Michael Brown has officially dropped out of the race as a result.
- Signs point to a single agency as the common denominator behind the forged signatures.
UPDATE (May 26): Republican candidates Michael Brown, James Craig, Perry Johnson, Michael Markey, and Donna Brandenburg will be held off the GOP primary ballot for governor barring court intervention, the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers ruled. The candidates failed to submit the 15,000 signatures necessary after the Bureau of Elections found independent contractors employed by their campaigns engaged in large-scale forgery.
The Democratic board members upheld the recommendation of the Bureau of Elections, as Republican board members attempted to intervene in support of Republican candidates. The two-to-two deadlock is enough to keep the candidates off the ballot this fall. The candidates will be able appeal the decision in court, and several are expected to. Brown has already dropped out of the race.
LANSING, Mich.—On Monday night, officials from the Michigan Bureau of Elections released a report revealing a signature scandal that may take down five Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Signature gatherers hired for James Craig, Perry Johnson, Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown, and Michael Markey forged tens of thousands of signatures, state officials said, likely disqualifying the candidates from the Aug. 2 primary.
“Given the large number of candidates seeking to qualify for the ballot, Bureau staff began to review nominating petitions at the end of March, after several gubernatorial candidates had submitted nominating petitions,” the Bureau wrote in the report. “During this review, staff noticed a large number of petition sheets, submitted by certain circulators, appeared fraudulent and consisted entirely of invalid signatures.”
The Bureau of Elections found no evidence that the campaigns or candidates were aware of the forgery conspiracy.
Michael Brown, a Michigan State Police officer, dropped out of the race as of Tuesday morning after two-thirds of his signatures were disallowed. Michael Markey, a financial advisor, and Donna Brandenburg also fell below the required number of signatures because of the scandal.
The report identified 36 individuals in a coordinated plot to forge the signatures of Michigan voters, and referred to footnotes linking them to employment by convicted felon Shawn Wilmoth, who pleaded guilty to two counts of election fraud in 2011. Wilmoth’s petition management company, First Choice Contracting, LLC, is based in Michigan, but his convictions stem from illegal signature gathering efforts in Virginia. He has recently recruited petitioners in Florida.
“He previously pled guilty to two counts of election fraud in 2011, in which he reportedly instructed two individuals to sign as a witness on dozens of petition sheets filled with signatures they did not collect,” Michigan’s Elections Bureau report said.
It also hinted at a potential motivation for signature gatherers to falsify their documents.
“The Bureau notes the preponderance of media reports about the difficulty in security circulators and signatures this year, given the abundance of petition campaigns nationwide and the continuing lack of in-person events,” the report said. “Reportedly, the average cost of signature gathering rose from $5 to $7 per signature to $20 per signature.”
Not long before the report was released on Monday, Michigan’s wealthiest political family endorsed Tudor Dixon for governor.
“We think Tudor has, as a business leader, as a mom, has experience, the passion, and a plan to put the state back on track, said Dick DeVos, husband of Betsy DeVos, during a radio appearance on The Paul W. Smith Show.
Dixon was tracking behind Republican frontrunner candidates James Craig and Perry Johnson. A challenge to her petition’s signatures failed, leaving her in the lead while the other candidates consider whether to challenge the Bureau’s report. According to Talking Points Memo, “A super PAC supporting Dixon’s candidacy was among the Michigan political entities to file a complaint alleging widespread fraud in the signature sheets of Craig.”
Johnson’s campaign indicated that he would protest the bureau’s recommendation. Any candidate can contest the recommendation with the Board of State Canvassers, which meets Thursday, or if unsuccessful there, in court.
The report released from the Bureau of Elections does not implicate candidates as having engaged in the forgery scheme, but it is common practice for campaigns to review their petitions before submitting them, since it’s typical for a small amount of signatures to be fake.
This year, however, may have been the single-biggest case of forgery in Michigan election history.
“Although it is typical for staff to encounter some signatures of dubious authenticity scattered within nominating petitions, 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 report said.
All told, the bureau tossed out more than 68,000 signatures it deemed invalid. More than half of the signatures of Craig, Markey, Brandenburg, and Brown did not make the cut.
The petition sheets submitted by the campaign lacked signs of the normal wear and tear from gathering signatures, the report said, which served as the first red flag. Then, staff identified pages with nearly identical handwriting across lines and other aberrations for signature rolls. In several instances, circulators appeared to have intentionally scribbled signatures illegibly or obfuscated a category to make their petitions appear more legitimate.
Tuesday, the Michigan Democratic Party released statements from voters, identified only by their first names, who claimed they never signed petitions on which their names appeared.
“I am one of the fraudulent signatures on James Craig’s petitions. I wasn’t even within Michigan’s borders on the day my name was forged,” Vivian from Grand Blanc said in the Democratic Party press release.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser released a statement saying that Democrats were angling to disqualify candidates in “unprecedented ways” and that Republicans would continue “fighting for fairness.” The nonpartisan Bureau of Elections said in its report that it had identified abnormalities in the petition sheets well before Democrats challenged the signatures of three candidates last month.
The Bureau of Elections has already been in communication with law enforcement about potential criminal penalties for fraud.