The Conyers Comedy

Paul Jacob
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Posted: May 11, 2014 12:01 AM
The Conyers Comedy

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the liberal icon and 49-year, 25-term congressman representing bankrupt Detroit, has failed to gather enough valid voter signatures to earn a spot on the Democratic Party Primary ballot in this very Democratic Party-dominated (and nearly-destroyed) district.

How many signatures was Conyers’s campaign required to obtain?

Well, Michiganders wishing to put an issue on the statewide ballot must gather 258,087 voter signatures — or 322,609 for an initiative constitutional amendment. With 14 congressional districts, one might do the math and suppose that a congressional candidate would need, say 18,000 signatures.

But no, Michigan congressional candidates must get only a mere one thousand voters to sign their petitions. And for an incumbent, that hardly seems so difficult.

Indeed, the Conyers campaign turned in twice the requirement: 2,000 signatures. But after being checked by Wayne County, Michigan, election officials, only 1,119 of those were verified as actually coming from registered voters in the district.

That was still sufficient, of course, until Conyers’s opponent in the August 5th Democratic Primary, Rev. Horace Sheffield, challenged several people who circulated the petition for Conyers. Sheffield claimed the petition passers were not registered to vote in the district as required by Michigan law and, therefore, their signatures should not be counted.

One man, Daniel Pennington, was also found to have an outstanding arrest warrant in Lansing, Michigan, not to mention his fugitive status on a parole violation in Battle Creek. Those lurid tidbits may sell newspapers (and columns), but the problem in qualifying the Conyers’s petition is confined to whether Pennington was registered to vote while circulating the petition.

Conyers’s office claimed that Mr. Pennington and another petition circulator had registered back in December of last year. In fact, the official Qualified Voter File database clearly listed the date as Dec. 13, 2103. After a review, however, Detroit Elections Director Willie G. Wesley Jr. concluded that his office received the registrations on April 28 of this year, too late for the petition drive. That December date had been “erroneously” entered by an elections employee.

Hmmm.

On Friday, the county election staff recommended that 13th District Congressman Conyers’s petition be ruled “insufficient.” The incumbent stands more than 400 signatures short and may have to launch a write-in campaign to keep his mighty Washington perch into a sixth decade.

Forgive me for my initial reaction — less than sympathetic — to Mr. Conyers’s plight. In my 9-to-5 job with Citizens in Charge, I work with folks across the country battling attacks on the initiative petition process from legislators who claim it’s “too easy” to put issues on the ballot.

Which means, of course, that those politicians haven’t ever tried.

I wish candidates in every state had Michigan’s petition requirement. It might make them more sympathetic to the struggles of “their” citizens — instead of consistently antagonistic.

It would also provide a plethora of pitiful examples that our powerful politicians actually have surprisingly scant support. The failure of the Conyers petition effort is hardly rare. Two years ago, Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter failed and ultimately resigned after several staff members falsified signatures on his petition. The staffers were later convicted and received probation.

In this case, the companies that ran the Conyers effort did nothing fraudulent. Gouging the congressman’s re-election campaign for a whopping $20 a valid signature is legal. Surprise, surprise, a congressman would overpay.

Even the petition passers who weren’t registered voters are not accused of any real wrongdoing; they didn’t trick signers or forge signatures. These canvassers simply weren’t qualified under Michigan law. So, the perfectly valid signatures they collected of legally registered voters, who truly wanted to see Mr. Conyers’s name on the ballot, are tossed in the trash.

Doesn’t seem quite right.

Because it’s not. This Michigan statute is unconstitutional. Congressman Conyers has a First Amendment right to speak out and, in doing so, to hire whomever he desires to pass his petitions — whether they register to vote or not.

The State of Michigan has no compelling constitutional reason for the registration requirement and the highest court in the land has already ruled so in a starkly similar case. In Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Colorado law requiring initiative petition passers to be registered voters.

Courts have since struck down laws mandating that only residents of a state or district can circulate petitions as well. In fact, back in 2008, Michigan’s requirement that petition canvassers for recall efforts must be residents of the legislator’s district was overturned in federal court. Only the signers have to be district voters.

Lastly, just weeks ago, the Michigan Legislature passed a bill through both chambers on the same day it was introduced: the bill repealed the law requiring petition circulators for statewide initiatives and referendums to be state residents. Legislators were moving quickly to moot a lawsuit filed in federal court by the ACLU on behalf of my group, Citizens in Charge, and others.

A lawsuit the state would lose.

This Tuesday, Wayne County officials will make their official declaration that Rep. Conyers won’t be listed on the August 5 Democratic Party Primary ballot. But as long as he hires competent attorneys to challenge that finding, Conyers will be on the ballot … in a city that deserves better.