Rep. John Conyers Jr. narrowly escaped a political fiasco today when a federal judge granted him a place on the November ballot, allowing him to survive a campaign misstep that left him hundreds of valid signatures short of the number required for his re-election petition.
Conyers, a Democrat who was first elected in 1964, found his place on the ballot at risk because his campaign failed to collect 1,000 valid signatures on petitions for re-election. What initially appeared to be a minor misstep quickly became a grievous error that threatened the career of one of the most senior members of Congress, who is a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
More than 1,000 of the signatures collected on Conyers’ behalf were invalidated when it was discovered that hundreds of the names belonged to people who were not residents of his district or not registered to vote.
Even more damaging was the revelation that several petition circulators were not qualified, under the state law that governs elections; at least two were not registered voters. In the end, Conyers was left with 592 valid signatures, far short of the number needed.
That left Conyers in a precarious position. He quickly appealed to the Wayne County clerk, Cathy Garrett, who reviewed the signatures and confirmed that he was not eligible to be on the ballot. The decision left Conyers with several options.
His lawyers challenged the decision in federal court, saying Wednesday that the judge should throw out a state law requiring petition collectors to be registered to vote, arguing that the law violated the First Amendment. They cited an appeals court decision from 2008 that struck down a similar law in Ohio.
Judge Matthew Leitman of U.S. District Court called it “an exceptionally difficult case.”
Today, the Michigan secretary of state, Ruth Johnson, rejected an appeal from the Conyers campaign, concluding that he had not submitted the 1,000 signatures required to be on the ballot.
A lawyer for Conyers, John Pirich, said Wednesday that it would be “pretty outrageous” to make Conyers pay for technicalities involving the voter registrations of two signature collectors.
Ron Scott, a campaign spokesman for Conyers, said: “We’re moving ahead with our plans. Under the circumstances we feel positive, and Conyers is upbeat. We think the merits of the case will lead to a reasonable decision in our favor.”