Federal judge delays filing deadline for state candidates

LANSING (AP) — Michigan candidates will have 17 additional days to collect voter signatures to qualify for the ballot because of the state’s order to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, a federal judge ruled Monday, the eve of the filing deadline.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg was a reprieve for Eric Esshaki, a Republican running for a Detroit-area congressional seat. Local judicial candidates had joined the lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state election officials, too.

Today is the deadline under state law. The judge delayed it until May 8. He said candidates can collect half as many signatures as normal, and he ordered that they be able to gather them by email instead of requiring a physical signature.

Berg said Whitmer’s stay-at-home measure and the petition requirements “operate in tandem to impose a severe burden on plaintiff’s ability to seek elected office,” violating Esshaki’s constitutional rights. Esshaki said he had collected more than 700 of the 1,000 signatures needed by the time the order was issued, but he could not get the rest.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office said it was still reviewing the ruling and declined to comment.

The state had said Whitmer’s emergency declaration on March 10 “should have acted as a wake-up call” to Esshaki to “double down on signature collection efforts” before the stay-home order was issued March 23.

“This argument both defies good sense and flies in the face of all other guidance that the state was offering to citizens at the time,” Berg said.

The judge also rejected the state’s contention that candidates could use a mail-in campaign to gather signatures. He said it would cost them more money and be prohibitive during the virus outbreak.

Esshaki is seeking the GOP nomination in the 11th Congressional District, which Democrat Haley Stevens flipped from Republican control in 2018. Another GOP candidate, Whitney Williams, filed a brief opposing his request for an injunction.

Asked Friday why she had not extended the deadline, Whitmer said such deadlines are “critical in terms of keeping our elections on schedule. … It’s really important that, especially in times of crisis, we protect these fundamentals that are truths of our democracy.”

Esshaki said “today was a victory for protecting our constitutional rights and a “direct rebuke” against Whitmer.

But state Rep. Ann Bollin, a Brighton Township Republican, criticized the judge’s decision, saying Esshaki announced his candidacy in October. She also raised concerns that electronic signatures will jeopardize the integrity of the process.