Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, the leading Republican running for governor, is ineligible to appear on the primary ballot after failing to submit enough legitimate signatures, the state Bureau of Elections said in a report on Monday.
The report comes after Democrats and other candidates alleged "extensive evidence of fraud and forgery" by Craig and fellow Republican hopeful Perry Johnson, a deep-pocketed businessman and self-described "qualify guru." The Bureau of Elections identified "36 petition circulators who submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures." The bureau said criminal investigations and charges against certain circulators are possible.
The bureau's report said that all of the petition sheets submitted by the circulators "displayed suspicious patterns indicative of fraud" and did not match any signatures in the state's database. The agency estimated that these circulators submitted "at least 68,000 invalid signatures" across 10 sets of nominating contests.
"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 seats," the report said.
The candidates argued that they are the victims of the scheme, not the perpetrators. The bureau said it does not currently "have reason to believe that any specific candidates or campaigns were aware of the activities of fraudulent-petition circulators."
Along with Craig and Johnson, three other candidates — financial adviser Michael Markey, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, and entrepreneur Donna Brandenburg — failed to submit enough signatures to make the ballot, potentially disqualifying half of the 10-candidate field.
Craig was widely seen as the odds-on favorite to win the nomination and face Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November. The bureau found that Craig's campaign turned in over 11,000 invalid signatures, including nearly 10,000 from "fraudulent petition circulators." Less than half of his 21,305 signatures were "facially valid," leaving him short of the 15,000 signatures needed to make the ballot.
"The Bureau did not fully process the challenge because the number of signatures removed from the total after the review of fraudulent-petition circulators were such that Mr. Craig was already far below the minimum threshold for ballot access," the report said.
"The collapse of the James Craig campaign ... likely is the greatest in Michigan history," John Sellek, who worked as a top aide to former Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, told the Detroit Free Press.
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Craig said he is not ready to give up on the race.
"I'm a fighter, always been a fighter. Michigan wants something different. I know, everyone else knows, I was the GOP candidate that would have upset the incumbent," Craig told a Detroit Fox affiliate.
Craig blamed unspecified "shenanigans."
"I'm a threat to the Democrat party. I'm also a threat to my other Republican opponents," he said.
Johnson, the richest candidate in the race, also submitted more than 9,300 invalid signatures out of about 23,000, leaving him more than 1,000 signatures short of the 15,000 threshold.
John Yob, a consultant for Johnson, told The Detroit News that the bureau did not have the right to unilaterally void every signature gathered by the alleged forgers.
"We strongly believe they are refusing to count thousands of signatures from legitimate voters who signed the petitions and look forward to winning this fight before the board, and if necessary, in the courts," Yob said.
The Board of Canvassers, which has two Democrats and two Republicans, will review the bureau's findings on Thursday and will determine whether to accept the bureau's recommendation to disqualify the candidates. It would take three of four members to reject the bureau's findings though candidates can still take the issue to court.
Michigan Democrats also challenged the signatures gathered by conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, another gubernatorial hopeful, but the bureau determined that she submitted enough valid signatures. Dixon, who may become the leading contender if the other candidates are eliminated, on Monday was endorsed by the wealthy DeVos family.
Craig intends to argue that he was the victim of a "group of circulators to defraud the campaign," according to a filing by campaign lawyer Edward Greim earlier this month.
"It is our belief that the petition remains valid," Greim wrote. "That is because most of the technical challenges fail, and a signature comparison will likely show that the circulators did not write in a sufficient number of false signatures to erase the comfortable cushion of supporters amassed by the campaign."
It's unclear whether the Board of Canvassers will be satisfied by that argument. Republican strategist Dennis Darnoi told WDIV-TV that there was campaign malfeasance on "two fronts."
"It's the people who fraudulently turned in these signatures. But the campaign should of had a mechanism by which they are viewing and vetting these signatures before they are actually paying these people for them," he said, adding, "somebody should absolutely go to jail. This was done intentionally, and it is a violation of law. There are fines that are set out, so yes, somebody should be punished for this."