Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett now says she does not believe U.S. Rep. John Conyers has enough valid signatures to qualify for the Aug. 5 primary ballot.
But that doesn’t mean Conyers is officially kicked off.
Garrett confirmed Friday afternoon that she received a letter from Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey Wednesday night saying that Winfrey had determined that the legal voter registration date of two people who collected signatures for the Conyers campaign should be April 28, 2014, instead of Dec. 13, 2013.
By law, Daniel Pennington and Tiara Willis Pittman should have been registered voters when they gathered the ballot signatures.
“With that being said, and with the dates being changed from Ms. Winfrey’s office, it says at this time that the congressman would not have enough signatures,” Garrett said. She added that her final determination should come before May 13, after an investigation has been completed.
Conyers’ attorney John Pirich said when questions began to arise about the two petition circulators, Conyers’ campaign received voter registration forms for Pennington and Willis Pittman dated Dec. 13, 2013. And the office is prepared to provide evidence to Wayne County and the Secretary of State to prove that status.
“It must be made clear that any registration deficiency is not the fault of the individuals; the fault lies with the Detroit City Clerk’s Office and their compliance with the law,” Pirich said in a statement released Friday. The matter isn’t over, Pirich added, saying the Conyers campaign also is trying to review the 800 signatures that were ruled invalid to see whether they can be “rehabilitated” before Garrett makes her final determination.
“When this review process of the signatures and the circulators is completed, I’m confident that Congressman Conyers will have more than a sufficient number of signatures to get on the ballot.” Pirich told the Free Press on Friday. “This is all a process, and we’re just in the second inning.”
City clerk's explanation
Winfrey said Friday that the two petition gatherers came into the City Clerk’s Office late in the day on Monday, told a person at the counter that they had registered to vote by mail in December but lost receipts that would prove it. A worker issued the two receipts showing that they had registered to vote, but Winfrey said the receipts were not legally binding.
“They were gaming the system,” Winfrey said. “Both of them said they registered with the Secretary of State, but they would have a receipt to prove that. Naturally, they said they lost it. We caught it in administration within 24 hours and corrected it.”
Conyers turned in 2,000 signatures on April 18, and Garrett’s office found that 1,193 of those signatures were valid. State law says that Conyers needs at least 1,000 valid signatures and they must come from and be gathered by registered voters.
The Rev. Horace Sheffield, the Detroit Democrat who is running against Conyers, filed a challenge to Conyers’ petitions, citing the voter registration problems for 10 of Conyers’ circulators.
The Free Press reviewed the petitions on Friday and found that Pennington and Willis Pittman gathered a total of 317 signatures that had not been crossed off as invalid. If those signatures aren’t counted, it would put Conyers well below the 1,000 signatures he needs to make the ballot.
“I do not have the authority to input anything into the qualified voter file, remove, change, etc., anything,” Garrett said. “That’s between Janice Winfrey’s office and Ruth Johnson, the secretary of state.”
Garrett said she suspects the matter may wind up in court, because there were documents with seals and signatures saying that the two signature gatherers were registered voters as of December 2013. The secretary of state does not have any record of the two individuals trying to register at SOS branch offices in December, said Chris Thomas, director of elections for the SOS.
“And now it’s changed,” Garrett said. “I do understand that mistakes happen. We make them all the time. But that’s not a thoughtless process, either one of those.”
Expression of respect
Garrett teared up at the end of a brief interview with the Free Press, saying that she knows Conyers personally and, until recent redistricting, he had been the only congressman who had ever represented her. She conceded that the signature mess was personally painful for her to watch.
“For all of the historical value, all of the pride that I feel to say he is a United States congressman,” she said, “even if I didn’t know him personally, that pride would be there, and this is quite unfortunate.”
The apparent petition problem happened despite Conyers’ campaign paying a chunk of money to gather the signatures. Conyers spent $11,500 on “petition signature collection services” in the first three months of the year, according to his campaign finance statement. He paid Detroit-based Ronin America — political consultant Steve Hood’s firm — $8,500, and Skip Mongo $3,000. Mongo is brother to Adolph Mongo, a political consultant helping Sheffield.
The preliminary decision from Garrett opens up two possibilities for Conyers:
■ An appeal of the ruling that he doesn’t have enough valid signatures on his petitions. Conyers can appeal to either the secretary of state or Wayne County Circuit Court.
He may have some case law on his side for that route. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that petition circulators for ballot initiatives did not have to be registered voters to collect signatures.
In addition, the U.S. District Court for western Michigan ruled in 2009 that petition circulators trying to gather signatures for a recall petition against then-state Rep. Andy Dillon, D-Redford, didn’t need to be residents of the district or registered to vote to collect signatures.
“The Court finds that the registration and residency restrictions for recall-petition circulators are just as burdensome as the unquestionably unconstitutional registration and residency restrictions on initiative- and candidate-petition circulators because the restrictions substantially decrease the pool of potential circulators,” the court ruled at the time.
A federal court in Ohio made the same ruling in 2004 when Ralph Nader ran for president as an independent.
Thomas said he doesn’t believe there is case law to support an appeal because the other cases haven’t specifically dealt with partisan candidates for office, just independents and ballot initiatives.
“Nobody has ever spoken at an appellate level on partisan candidates in a primary,” he said. “There is nothing that we would look at to say the Michigan law is bound by this court decision.”
Richard Winger, a San Francisco resident who has worked for 50 years to increase access to the ballot and who writes the monthly newsletter “Ballot Access News,” said all the case law points to allowing those signatures to remain valid.
“Even if it dealt with independent candidates, you can’t parse the issue that narrowly,” he said. “This is a free speech issue.”
■ Conyers can run as a write-in candidate for Congress, a tactic that was used unsuccessfully by former state Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, after U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Livonia, was booted from the ballot for fraudulent petitions. It was also the method for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in the primary race for mayor last year after it was determined he missed the deadline window to turn in his qualifying papers.
If it comes down to an appeal or a write-in, it would be a stunning blow to Conyers, 84, who was first elected to Congress in 1964 and has become a leading liberal voice in Congress. He’s also the only African American in Michigan’s congressional delegation.
Sheffield said he expects to face Conyers in August, one way or another, either as a candidate listed on the ballot or as a write-in.
“It’s clear that it’s going to be a contentious contest all the way to the end. We don’t expect to win with this decision,” he said. “We expect to win at the ballot box.”http://www.freep.com/article/20140502/NEWS06/305020117/John-Conyers-Cathy-Garrett