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Democratic governor's race engulfed in eligibility spat

By Alice Yin/Associated Press • May 2, 2018 at 4:30 PM

LANSING — Michigan's Democratic primary was swept up in a tangle of ballot eligibility complaints on Tuesday as two gubernatorial candidates lobbed challenges at each other on the last day to contest a nominating petition.

Shri Thanedar filed a complaint in the morning against Abdul El-Sayed, a primary opponent for the governor's seat who has already been weathering skepticism over the validity of his bid to replace Gov. Rick Snyder. Thanedar wrote to the state elections bureau that El-Sayed has not been a registered voter over the four years leading up to this fall's general election — a requirement under Michigan's constitution and election law.

"This will be good for the party," Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman, said Tuesday. "The bureau needs to do its job and give us closure so that our party can move forward."

Six hours later, El-Sayed challenged the validity of the signatures on Thanedar's nominating petition. His complaint, based on a review of his opponents' ballot petition signatures conducted April 26 to May 1, claims most of the signatures in Thanedar's petition have potentially disqualifying errors. The offenses range from voter information clashing with the qualified voter file to potentially falsified signatures of petition circulators.

Both campaigns deny the other's accusations. The third contender for the Democratic nomination, Gretchen Whitmer, backed the eligibility of El-Sayed's candidacy but declined to comment on the complaint against Thanedar. There are no challenges against her ballot eligibility.

El-Sayed spokesman Adam Joseph derided the complaint against El-Sayed for a past stint in New York, where he studied and worked until moving back to be Detroit's health director in 2015.

"As we've long held, Abdul is 100 percent eligible to be governor," Joseph said. "But that won't stop candidates from futile attempts at using this manufactured controversy as a smoke screen."

Election records show El-Sayed has been continuously registered to vote in Michigan since 2003, Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said. He said his office plans to review and make recommendations to the Board of Canvassers later this month regarding the complaints against El-Sayed, Thanedar and four U.S. congressional candidates.

Thanedar's letter joins three other challenges against El-Sayed and accuses lawyers for GOP candidate and state Attorney General Bill Schuette of meddling in the controversy to disrupt his rival party's primary.

In March, El-Sayed filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory ruling on his eligibility to run for governor in the hopes it would quell his doubters once and for all. But Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican represented by assistant attorneys general, sought last month to dismiss the case on grounds that there was no "actual controversy" at the time.

"This is their job when the state is sued," Thanedar said. "And yet the attorneys have failed to act. I'm only assuming they're doing that to help somebody."

Schuette's spokeswoman, Andrea Bitely, said the team of assistant attorneys general involved in reviewing El-Sayed's candidacy report exclusively to the Michigan secretary of state, not Schuette.

Thanedar has recently caught up to poll neck and neck with Whitmer, the former Democratic Senate minority leader, for their party's gubernatorial nomination. El-Sayed, the ex-Detroit health director, has drawn enthusiasm from many kingpin progressive groups but trails behind the other two candidates.

If elected, El-Sayed would be the state's first Muslim governor. In the GOP primary, Schuette is facing off with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck.

Sam Newton, a spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party, declined to comment on both eligibility challenges.

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