Michigan's GOP push to fight fake "voter fraud" gets upended by actual fraud

More petition fraud in Michigan: Another GOP campaign in the Mitten State gets sidetracked by phony signatures

By Igor Derysh

Deputy Politics Editor

Published June 6, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Supporters of Donald Trump gather outside the Michigan House Oversight building on December 2, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.  (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
Supporters of Donald Trump gather outside the Michigan House Oversight building on December 2, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Organizers of a Republican-backed Michigan petition to enact voter restrictions to combat would-be voter fraud missed the state's filing deadline on Wednesday after discovering tens of thousands of fraudulent signatures.

Michigan Republicans are backing the citizen initiative petition known as Secure MI Vote​​​​, which would impose strict voter ID requirements, restrict absentee voting and ban private donations that help keep polling places open. The petition drive was launched after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, vetoed a slew of voting restrictions passed by the Republican-led legislature. Though the petition is ostensibly a citizen initiative, voters are not expected to see the measure appear on the ballot. Republicans have openly plotted all along to exploit a bizarre provision in the state constitution that allows the legislature to adopt a citizen initiative and pass it with a simple majority that the governor cannot veto.

This latest fake-signature scandal comes only days after the two leading Republican candidates for governor were booted off the ballot.

Organizers had planned to submit the petition to the state by Wednesday's deadline but abruptly backed down after discovering that around 20,000 signatures were fraudulent. Organizer Jamie Roe insisted that the effort had gathered 435,000 signatures, more than the 340,047 required, but said the group did not submit the petition out of an "abundance of caution."

"The fact of the matter is our volunteers, our supporters had put in too much hard work for us to end up getting bounced off the ballot due to some technicality," he told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

The announcement came just days after the state's Bureau of Elections and Board of Canvassers disqualified five of the 10 Republicans running for governor, including frontrunners James Craig and Perry Johnson, after discovering that thousands of the signatures on the petitions they circulated to qualify for the ballot were fraudulent. The Bureau of Elections identified 36 petition circulators who submitted at least 68,000 fraudulent signatures in the gubernatorial primary, as well as in nine other nominating contests. Craig and Johnson argued they were victims of the fraud, not its perpetrators, but a court upheld both of their disqualifications this week.

RELATED: "Embarrassing": Even Republicans fume at Michigan GOP for defending candidates busted for fraud

Roe similarly argued that petition circulators victimized the Secure MI Vote effort.

"We would also be filing today if it weren't for some people who tried to defraud the process," Roe said while standing beside boxes of petitions. "This is all fraud – what we believe is fraudulent petitions. Petitions that were circulated by fraudsters similar to those who have victimized some of the gubernatorial campaigns in the state."

Roe said he was not sure whether fraudulent circulators caught by the campaign are the same ones that were caught in the gubernatorial primary but said "I would bet that they are."

Roe said the committee would turn over the petitions to law enforcement.

"There's just a huge financial incentive to participate in fraud," Roe said, "which is why it has to be punished."

Other organizers who have led petition drives in the state took issue with Roe's explanation.

"At the end of the day, you have to take responsibility for who you hired to collect your signatures," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan advocacy group that successfully backed a citizen initiative to reform redistricting.

Wang accused the campaign of trying to "abuse" the citizen initiative process.

"They're trying to use it as a way to do an end-run around the voters," she said. "In fact, they're supposed to be using it to demonstrate that they have a level of support, that they have the right to be on the ballot. They haven't been able to do that."

RELATED: Michigan GOP launches not-so-secret plan to undo Whitmer's veto on voting bill

Roe suggested that the petition circulators had faked the signatures. But long before Wednesday's announcement, the Secure MI Vote drive was plagued by allegations that petition circulators were misleading voters. Numerous reports on social media and in local news outlets alleged that petition circulators made blatantly false statements to Black voters while trying to convince them to sign a petition that could "risk their own disenfranchisement."

State Rep. Amos O'Neal recalled his own run-in with a Secure MI Vote petition circulator at a Saginaw County barbershop.

"All he said was, 'Hey, can you guys sign my petition? It's going to help improve voting.' When I asked him exactly what it was he was petitioning for, he couldn't articulate," O'Neal told MLive.

When O'Neal urged others in the barbershop not to sign, the petition circulator "became irate," he said.

"He said — and these are his exact words — 'You're messing with my money.' I took that as meaning, he's being paid to go around — particularly in Black communities — to get signatures," he told the outlet.

Voters Not Politicians launched a tool allowing voters to report deception or misinformation by Secure MI Vote circulators, and heard many similar complaints.

"We've been collecting stories from people who really have signer's remorse," Wang told Salon. "The accounts we've been getting are sort of consistent: Petition circulators have been saying, for example, 'However you think about voting rights, this is just to put the question to the voters.'"

When one voter pressed circulators on what was in the actual petition, "they refused to say anything else about the petition, about what's in it," one account said, according to Wang.

"It just illustrates the fact that they don't have any policies in there that they can publicly and openly and proudly discuss, even with the people they're trying to get to sign. They're playing this game where they're trying to mislead voters into signing the petition."

This trend has played out in several other petition drives as well in the Mitten State. The 2020 Unlock Michigan petition, which aimed at repealing Whitmer's powers to lock down businesses, was plagued by allegations of forged signatures and misleading language. Petition circulators for the Let MI Kids Learn petition, a Betsy DeVos-linked initiative aimed at boosting funding for private schools, were also accused of misleading voters. Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for the Let MI Kids Learn campaign, told Axios that the group also did not plan to submit its petition to the secretary of state and would instead rely on the legislature to pass the proposal, "which was going to happen anyway."

RELATED: Battleground Michigan: GOP joins with militant far right in campaign against democracy

Wang said Wednesday's announcement drops the pretense that Secure MI Vote is actually a citizen initiative.

"It's never been their plan to qualify for the ballot. The reason they were collecting signatures was to give these voter-suppression measures to the legislature, which would pass them and do an end-run around both the voters and the governor," she said. "This legislature has already passed a number of measures that are on the Secure MI Vote petition, and they've been very clear that they're willing to use their power in an anti-democratic way to keep themselves in power at the expense of our democracy."

Roe on Wednesday insisted that the group plans to submit the signatures to the Bureau of Elections "within a couple of weeks," although since the filing deadline was missed, the bureau may delay the review of the petition until 2024.

"We hope that we can count on the professionalism of the Bureau of Elections to — when we do submit it — promptly go through and certify the results," Roe said, adding that the extra time will help ensure "they are going to have no choice but to approve us and move on to the next step of the process," which would be submission to the state legislature.

Despite mounting allegations of misleading or fraudulent practices by petition circulators, lying to get petition signatures is not illegal in Michigan. State officials have increasingly warned voters to be careful about what they're signing.

State Attorney General Dana Nessel urged "anyone who is approached by a petitioner to carefully read and make every best effort to understand what you are agreeing to sign."

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called on the legislature to ban petition circulators from lying.

"For decades we've seen Michigan citizens intentionally deceived about ballot petitions, particularly our most vulnerable populations."

"For decades we've seen Michigan citizens intentionally deceived about ballot petitions, and particularly our most vulnerable populations," Benson said in a statement. "The recent increase in complaints demonstrates it's high time for the Legislature to act to make it a crime to intentionally mislead a voter into signing a petition."

Democrats in the state Senate have pushed to enact new restrictions on petitions, but have been blocked in the GOP-led legislature. Democrats previously introduced a package of bills that would hold ballot organizations liable if their circulators intentionally mislead voters, ban groups from paying per signature and allow voters to remove their name from a petition.

"Ballot proposals are critical for citizens to have a say in how our democracy operates, but the process is sullied when bad actors use deception as a tool to obtain signatures," state Sen. Jeremy Moss, a Democrat who led the legislative package, said in a statement. "Petition gatherers should not be lying to the public to promote their cause."

Those kinds of measures have drawn pushback from groups like the ACLU over free speech concerns, however, and Wang also expressed worries about the "ramifications" of legislation cracking down on petition gatherers.

"I think the solution is that campaigns shouldn't be putting petitions out there trying to get signatures based on misleading statements," she said. 

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By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's Deputy News and Politics Editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Michigan Petitions Politics Reporting Republicans Voter Suppression Voting Restrictions