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A perfect storm: How signature gathering became so difficult

Profile view of a woman with pink tote bag and Pride flag, holding a petition on a clipboard, facing a woman who's wearing a dark jacket.
Sehvilla Mann
/
WMUK
Petition gatherers at the Kalamazoo Pride festival, Saturday, June 4 in Kalamazoo.

Hundreds of signature gatherers have been stationed on street corners throughout Michigan this spring. Most are following the law, but widespread fraud allegations have disrupted multiple candidacies and ballot initiatives.

Then, last month, the race for Michigan governor got a shock when half the Republican field found out they failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The casualties included businesswoman Donna Brandenburg, who summed up her frustration succinctly at a recent meeting.

“This is a goat rodeo,” Brandenburg told the Board of State Canvassers at a May 26 meeting in Lansing at which a deadlocked board failed to certify four gubernatorial candidates to the ballot.

In its report, the Michigan Bureau of Elections outlined evidence of widespread fraud occurring among paid petition circulators who worked on multiple campaigns.

The problem also stretched into signature collection for ballot initiatives.

“My understanding of the way this kind of works is one of these guys will attach themselves to a campaign and the first week they’ll turn in, say 20 sheets of perfect, pristine petitions and then one sheet of just garbage. All forgeries,” said Fred Wszolek of the Let MI Kids Learn Campaign, which would create tax incentive-funded scholarships to pay for things including private school tuition. “And if they don’t get caught, then they come back the next week.”

Wszolek said the campaign caught potential fraud early in their signature gathering effort, but decided to wait to submit signatures rather than make last week’s filing deadline.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections noted signature fraud of this level is rare.

Political advisor John Sellek, however, said this has been building into an issue as more campaigns have decided to outsource signature gathering.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a workforce shortage.

“That put a rising inflationary price increase just like we’re seeing for gasoline and milk and bread, even on the workers who are willing to go out and collect the signatures,” Sellek said.

Election officials said the average price in the gubernatorial race reached as high as $20 per signature.

People traveled across the country from places like Texas or North Carolina to Michigan for the opportunity to circulate petitions.

“When folks realize the kind of payday that can come when you’re collecting 20,000 signatures at $20 a pop, people start to skirt the rules,” Sellek said.

In the governor’s race, voters could only sign the nominating petition for one candidate.

Sellek said, on top of that pressure, the Republican primary field was made up of relative political newcomers.

“A lot of these people don’t know the ins and outs. And they’re susceptible either to not knowing the rules, not following the rules, or hiring people that maybe don’t have the best reputations at what they’re doing,” he said.

Among the ballot initiatives, even those who had contracted with known companies found themselves vulnerable to fraud.

“There is this set of independent contractors that is forcing every campaign to toss out signatures. Every campaign is having to toss out a lot of signatures,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of “One Fair Wage,” the group behind a petition to raise Michigan’s minimum wage.

Like the Let MI Kids Learn campaign, One Fair Wage, chose to take more time to collect valid signatures rather than meet last week’s deadline to get on the November ballot.

Individuals accused of signature fraud could face prosecution.

But it does not appear there will be any legislation to fix the problem.

State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) served two terms as Michigan Secretary of State. She said she’s sympathetic to the affected campaigns

“But ultimately, it is your responsibility as someone running to get those signatures and make sure they’re valid," she said.