When Rep. John Conyers was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964, he was one of only six black congressmen. Representing Detroit, Michigan, he had won the Democratic primary by just 108 votes. He went on to win 84 percent of the vote in the general election, a trend he would easily continue for the next 25 elections. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. John Conyers has served the citizens of Detroit for 50 years, making him the second longest serving member of the House.
Now for the first time Rep. Conyers may not be on the ballot, all due to a technicality.
Michigan election law says that a candidate can only appear on a ballot via a nominating petition. Beginning in 1966, registered voters within the congressional district sign a petition supporting a candidate for the party’s nomination. The petition must be filed with the Secretary of State by the deadline in order to appear on the August primary ballot. Candidates currently need 1,000 signatures in order to qualify.
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Having done this more than 20 times, Conyers campaign turned in his nominating petition with nearly 2,000 signatures, almost double the amount needed.
Election officials invalidated hundreds of signatures for common violations, such as incorrect voter addresses. Still, this left more than 1,200 signatures on the petition. However, Conyers’ opponent, Detroit minister Horace Sheffield III, challenged the signatures gathered by two paid campaign workers. Sheffield was successful in his challenge, which removed another 644 signatures. This left Conyers with only 592 valid signatures, far short of the needed 1,000 to be placed on the ballot.
The signatures were from valid voters in the district. However, the two people circulating the petition were not registered voters, which under Michigan law made them ineligible to circulate the petition and, therefore, nullified all of the signatures gathered. It was Sheffield’s campaign manager that learned the petition circulators were not registered voters and alerted the Secretary of State.
Conyers, along with the ACLU, filed a lawsuit last week to challenge the part of the law requiring that petition circulators also be registered voters. Their argument is that the law is unconstitutional since petition gathering is political speech and voter registration is not a requirement to exercise First Amendment rights. They are joined in the suit by a school board candidate who also wants the law invalidated.
On Wednesday, Conyers’ opponent argued that the congressman waited too long to challenge the law and any changes would disrupt a smooth election process. Besides, his lawyer pointed out, Conyers has done this many times before. The Attorney General, arguing for the state, also opposes changes to the law, claiming it would be unfair to other candidates who met the requirement. Furthermore, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has not made a final decision as to whether Conyers will be placed on the ballot, as they are currently rechecking the signatures.
Still, as they point out, current law has “very narrow and specific instructions” regarding petitions and requires that circulators are registered voters.
A political consultant hired by the campaign accepts responsibility for the misstep, as it was his company that was hired to gather the signatures. If unsuccessful in his court challenge, Conyers’ only other option is to mount a time consuming and expensive write-in campaign. While such campaigns are rarely successful, his popularity in the overwhelmingly Democratic district increases the possibility for success.
Conyers will have to wait until Friday to learn his next steps. The Secretary of State will complete her review then. Detroit Federal District Judge Matthew Leittman will issue his ruling after her decision.
If successful, Rep. Conyers is expected to easily win his 26th term, which would make him the longest serving representative as his fellow Michigan colleague, and current longest serving congressional member, Rep. John Dingell is retiring this year.