(AP) -- Two leading contenders for the GOP nomination for Michigan governor could be ruled ineligible for the primary ballot on Thursday, after the state's elections bureau said they didn't file enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the August contest.
In a recommendation that immediately shook up the governor's race, board staff on Monday said former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and businessman Perry Johnson, along with three other lesser-known candidates, should be declared ineligible. A four-person, bipartisan Board of State Canvassers will vote on the recommendations Thursday, though candidates that don't make the ballot could challenge the decision in court.
The candidates were among a 10-person field vying to take on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for control of the battleground state in November.
Democrats challenged the GOP candidates' petitions, alleging mass forgery and other issues. Another Republican candidate, Tudor Dixon, had also contested Craig's voter signatures as fake. The bureau, however, said it discovered the fraud on its own review and didn't process the challenges filed by the Michigan Democratic Party and Dixon.
Craig had been leading in most Republican primary polls, while Johnson has already spent millions of his personal fortune on the contest. Bureau staff also determined that three other lesser-known GOP candidates -- Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey -- did not turn in enough valid signatures. Brown withdrew from the race on Tuesday.
Candidates for governor were required to submit valid signatures from 15,000 registered voters to make the ballot. In a report released late Monday, bureau staff said multiple petition sheets for various candidates "displayed suspicious patterns indicative of fraud." Some of the petitions for Craig's campaign, for example, had signatures that all appeared to be written in the same handwriting.
Staff said that while it's typical for petitions to include scattered instances of dubious signatures, "the Bureau is unaware of another election cycle" with such a "substantial volume" of fraudulent signatures, involving multiple candidates. They identified 36 petition circulators -- or people who gather signatures and are often paid per signature -- who submitted petition sheets made up entirely of invalid signatures. They gathered signatures for 10 candidates, including some seeking judgeships, the bureau reported.
The bureau said Craig submitted 10,192 valid signatures -- well short of the 15,000 needed. It tossed 11,113 signatures, including 9,879 that were allegedly fraudulently collected by 18 paid circulators.
Staff said Johnson turned in 13,800 valid signatures. They threw out 9,393, including 6,983 that they said are fraudulent and were gathered by many of the same people who also forged signatures that Craig submitted.
Johnson's campaign criticized the recommendations from the bureau, which is part of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office, saying they don't have the right to toss signatures gathered by "alleged forgers who victimized five campaigns." Campaign consultant John Yob said the campaign would take the issue to court if necessary.
The bureau said it doesn't believe specific campaigns or candidates were aware of what "fraudulent-petition circulators" were doing. Staff wrote that the bureau was working to refer the fraud to law enforcement for criminal investigation.