Five Republican candidates for Michigan governor were disqualified by a state canvassing board on Thursday for submitting nominating petitions that officials said had contained thousands of forged signatures. The decision sent the race, in a key battleground state, into chaos and dealt a serious blow to the party’s plans to challenge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic incumbent.
The five candidates, half of the party’s field, were denied a spot on the Aug. 2 primary ballot by the Board of State Canvassers, including James Craig, a former Detroit police chief, and Perry Johnson, a wealthy businessman.
Both had widely been viewed as favorites for the Republican nomination before election officials this week rejected thousands of signatures gathered on behalf of the candidates, finding that the names had been forged and were collected by fraudulent petition circulators.
The ruling was expected to draw a host of lawsuits from Republicans, who have characterized the move as politically motivated.
“It is a travesty that partisans in a position to uphold democracy and the will of the people allowed politics to get in the way,” Mr. Craig said in a statement on Thursday, vowing to appeal the decision in court.
Deadlocked along party lines, with two Democrats supporting the disqualification and two Republicans opposing it, the canvassing board upheld a recommendation by the Michigan Bureau of Elections to exclude the candidates. A candidate must get a majority of votes from the board’s four members to be certified for a spot on the ballot.
On Monday, the elections bureau determined that the five Republican candidates for governor did not meet the requirement of submitting signatures from at least 15,000 registered voters.
In a statement on Thursday, Ron Weiser, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, sharply criticized the decision.
“The way this bureau deviated from its historical practice is unprecedented, and I think the arguments laid out by the challengers should have their time in court,” Mr. Weiser said. “This is about fighting against voter disenfranchisement and for choice at the ballot box.”
John Yob, a campaign strategist for Mr. Johnson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. In a series of tweets on Monday night, Mr. Yob said Mr. Johnson’s campaign would challenge the ruling.
Republicans have directed criticism at the head of the state agency that runs the elections bureau: Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who is secretary of state.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Benson declined to comment on Thursday after the canvassing board’s decision, noting that it is an independent entity.
In its review this week of the nominating petitions, the elections bureau issued a stinging indictment of the methods used by the candidates’ campaigns to collect signatures and the operatives working for the candidates.
“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,” the bureau said. It also clarified that it saw no evidence that the candidates had any knowledge of the fraud.
Election officials said they had identified 36 people who had submitted fraudulent petition sheets consisting entirely of invalid signatures. On Monday, 19 candidates learned that they had not met the signature requirement to get onto the ballot, including three Republicans and one Democrat seeking House seats, and 10 nonpartisan candidates seeking judicial posts.
More than half of the 21,305 signatures submitted by Mr. Craig’s campaign were rejected, leaving him with 10,192 valid signatures, the bureau said in its report, which noted that little effort had been made to vary handwriting.
“In some cases, rather than attempting varying signatures, the circulator would intentionally scrawl illegibly,” the bureau said of the petitions for Mr. Craig. “In other instances, they circulated petition sheets among themselves, each filling out a line.”
Mr. Craig said in his statement on Thursday that the bureau’s staff had overstepped its authority when it rejected entire pages of signatures instead of doing so line by line.
“We are confident that when the law is justly applied, our campaign will be on the ballot this August,” he said.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Craig identified Vanguard Field Strategies, an Austin, Texas, firm, as helping to manage his canvassing effort, one that he said relied on several subcontractors that were previously unknown to him. He said the onus was on the firm to have checks and balances to detect fraud, and he called it “shortsighted” and unrealistic to expect that a busy candidate would verify more than 20,000 signatures.
Vanguard Field Strategies confirmed on Tuesday that 18 of the people identified in the elections bureau’s report as circulating the fraudulent petitions had been working for another firm that it had subcontracted to help it gather signatures.
The company’s president, who would not identify the subcontractor, said that none of the circulators named in the report had been paid by Vanguard. If the allegations are true, he said, the individuals should be charged with fraud.
The elections bureau rejected 9,393 of the 23,193 signatures submitted by Mr. Johnson’s campaign, leaving him with 13,800 valid signatures. Some of the fraudulent signatures represented voters who had died or moved out of the state, the bureau said.
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