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Trump was finally right about Michigan voter fraud. But very wrong about the culprits.

MSNBC logo MSNBC 5/26/2022 Dean Obeidallah
Photo illustration: A red colored map of Michigan over a piece of paper with signatures. © MSNBC Photo illustration: A red colored map of Michigan over a piece of paper with signatures.

Donald Trump was right. I never thought I’d write those words, but he did warn us that there was a “giant scam” in Michigan involving the state’s election. Of course, Trump made that claim about the 2020 presidential election in the state, where he lost by over 150,000 votes.

The bureau said the fraud was so widespread that after it struck the invalid signatures, five of the 10 candidates were lacking the requisite 15,000 valid signatures needed to remain on the ballot.

While that assertion was false — per numerous audits, lawsuits and a 55-page report the Republican-led Michigan Senate released in 2021 debunking each of Trump’s election lies — there is actually a significant election scandal in the state. But it involves the 2022 election for governor and Republicans, including some who have peddled Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Ah, karma.

To get on this year's ballot for governor in Michigan, state law required candidates to collect at least 15,000 signatures from registered voters and submit them by the April 19 deadline. Securing that many valid signatures in a state of over 8 million registered voters shouldn’t be that hard. That is, apparently unless you are one of the 10 Republican candidates running to take on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The state’s Bureau of Elections, which reviews the submitted petitions to ensure the signatures are valid, said after examining the petitions of the GOP gubernatorial candidates that it found a “volume of fraudulent petition sheets” that it had never seen before. The bureau said the fraud was so widespread that after it struck the invalid signatures, five of the 10 candidates were lacking the requisite 15,000 valid signatures needed to remain on the ballot. This included the two front-runners: former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and businessman Perry Johnson. In Craig’s case, the bureau reported that his campaign submitted over 21,000 signatures, but more than 11,000 were invalid, leaving him with just 10,192 “facially valid” signatures, well below the requirement.

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Part of what made the bureau suspicious, as detailed in its report, was some petition sheets not showing evidence of “normal wear” that would be found if a person carries a petition around for hours or even days to gather signatures. It also said some petitions appeared to be “round-tabled,” meaning people took turns signing lines on the petitions in an attempt to make the signatures appear authentic. Plus, it said it found the petitions included fake signatures of many dead voters. Looks like Trump was right again, this time about dead people getting involved in elections.

Election experts, including two at the University of Michigan, have explained that in the past, campaigns relied on volunteers to gather signatures. In recent years, however, more campaigns have hired commercial firms that pay people by the signatures they collect, work often done with little supervision. Still, in most cases, valid petitions are submitted. That wasn’t the case this time.

Why didn’t the campaigns double check the petitions before submitting them to the state?

The Michigan Bureau of Elections is not alleging that the candidates knew their petitions contained fraudulent signatures. But why didn’t the campaigns double check the petitions before submitting them to the state? As Lansing attorney John Pirich, an election law expert who has worked for both Republican and Democratic candidates, told the Detroit Free Press, "You don't have to be a handwriting expert to look at many, many of these signatures to see that they're almost virtually identical."

You would’ve thought that at least Johnson, who claimed at a debate this month that Trump legitimately won in 2020, would have reviewed the petitions in detail before submitting them, especially given that he recently stated that he views "voter integrity as one of the single most important issues in the state." Johnson is a big Trump loyalist who has run a campaign ad in which he vows to "hold Detroit accountable" when it comes to future elections. It's a transparent play on Trump’s lie that there was voter fraud in Detroit during the 2020 election.

In response to the news that he may be dumped from the ballot, Johnson made a statement that implied he was taken advantage of by “criminals.” Another Republican of the five identified by the bureau, Michigan State Police Capt. Michael Brown, dropped out of the race, saying he “cannot and will not be associated with this activity.”

On Thursday, the bipartisan, four-member Board of State Canvassers ruled the remaining four GOP candidates were disqualified from the ballot. Craig told NBC News he plans to file "an immediate appeal in the courts." We can expect to see similar lawsuits from the other disqualified candidates, which will extend this battle ahead of the August primary.

Say what you will about Trump — and believe me, I have — but he was right to be on the lookout for election fraud in Michigan. He just got the political party that was committing it wrong.

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