(CN) — Candidates for elected office in Michigan need only file half the required number of voter signatures to get their name placed on the state’s primary ballot due to the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, a federal judge ruled.
By law, anyone who wishes to be a candidate for elected office in Michigan must collect 1,000 signatures from registered voters in order to have their name included on the state’s primary ballot.
Eric Esshaki, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, sued the state for enforcing this requirement even while the state’s stay-at-home order is in effect, claiming it violates his — and voters’ — constitutional right to freedom of speech and association.
Michigan’s order, one of the strictest in the nation, threatens violators with a misdemeanor for leaving the house for a non-essential reason.
“Unfortunately, these are not normal times,” U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg said in his decision Monday halving the number of valid signatures required for a candidate to appear on the Michigan primary election ballot.
Berg’s preliminary injunction was issued one day before the final deadline to submit signatures to state elections officials. It also extends the deadline to May 8, and requires the state to recognize the legitimacy of electronic signatures.
The judge, an Obama-appointee, said his decision reflects the “unique historical circumstances” of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, which effectively prohibited candidates from collecting voter signatures for a month ahead of the deadline.
“The reality on the ground for plaintiff and other candidates is that state action has pulled the rug out from under their ability to collect signatures,” Berg said.
The state’s 1,000 signature requirement for inclusion on the ballot is reasonable under non-pandemic conditions, when candidates can knock on doors and collect signatures in public places, but Michigan is not entitled to enforce this specific numerical requirement under abnormal conditions, the ruling states.
Due to the stay-at-home order, “Michigan voters may lose the ability to vote for a candidate who, absent the pandemic, would have easily been included on the ballot,” Berg said.
In a written statement on his Facebook page, Esshaki said, “Today was a victory for protecting our Constitutional Rights. It was a direct rebuke against Governor Whitmer’s partisan actions seeking unlimited power.”
“It is clear the Governor’s political ambitions were at work here,” he added, referring to the possibility that Governor Esther Whitmer may be chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate in the 2020 presidential election. However, Whitmer, who is co-chair of Biden’s campaign, denies she will be Biden’s vice-president pick.
University of Michigan Professor Jenna Bednar told Courthouse News that “the most interesting implications [of this ruling] are longer term.”
“If the state recognizes electronic signatures, and if the order is extended beyond candidates to include ballot measures, we may see an increase in the number of ballot measures,” Bednar said. “People often forget how expensive it is to gather signatures: often the people carrying the clipboards charge the candidate or organization. If electronic signatures continue to be recognized, then once people get used to them they will be far easier and cheaper to acquire. We may see a rise in the number of ballot measures that make it on to the ballot.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly singled out Whitmer for criticism, referring to her as “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” in a tweet, and saying she is “way in over her head” and “all she does is sit there and blame the federal government” for its response to the pandemic.
Last week, armed protestors swarmed the Michigan capitol to protest the state’s restrictive stay-at-home order, openly defying social distancing guidelines. Some were heard chanting “lock her up” in reference to Whitmer, a popular chant at Trump’s 2016 campaign rallies, then aimed at Hillary Clinton.
Trump expressed his support for the protestors in several tweets calling for demonstrators to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” as well as Minnesota and Virginia.
As of Monday evening, Michigan had 32,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and 2,468 coronavirus-related deaths.
The state’s stay-at-home order expires at the end of April. Its primary election is scheduled for August 4, 2020.