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This 50-Year Congressman Can’t Find the Ballot

How illegal signature-gatherers might force the longest-serving African-American congressman to be a write-in candidate for his Democratic primary.

After nearly 50 years in Congress, John Conyers may end his political career in the most undignified way possible, by not even making the ballot.

The Michigan representative is the longest serving African-American in congressional history and will be the most senior elected official on Capitol Hill if he’s returned to office next year, but a snafu with the signature-gathering process may cost him a place on the ballot and make a formidable opponent out of a challenger who would otherwise be a long-shot.

The drama began when Conyers’ Democratic primary opponent, Rev. Horace Sheffield, a prominent Detroit minster whose daughter is on the city council, challenged hundreds of otherwise valid signatures gathered by the 24-term incumbent’s campaign because the canvassers were not registered to vote in Michigan, as required by state law. One of those signature-gatherers not only turned to be unregistered but is also a fugitive from justice.

As of Friday, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, the election official responsible for determining the validity of ballot petitions for the campaign, said that of 1,000 signatures that Conyers needed to get on the ballot, only 592 passed muster of the 1,193 originally deemed to be valid. A final decision is due Tuesday and if this preliminary verdict holds, Conyers would be forced to run as a write-in. Needless to say, litigation is expected.

First, the Conyers campaign is trying to rehabilitate signatures rejected for other reasons than the campaign worker who gathered them wasn’t registered to vote. Conyers’ attorney, John Pirish, is considered the top election lawyer in the state. Former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer raved to The Daily Beast about how Pirish successfully challenged tens of thousands of signatures gathered in an attempt to recall the then-mayor in late 1990s. According to Ed Sarpolus, a top Michigan pollster and Conyers’ campaign manager in 2012, the campaign is confident that 700-800 previously rejected signatures can be rehabilitated and used to get Conyers back on the ballot.

Even if this effort to rehabilitate signatures is unsuccessful, there still is the prospect that those gathered by unregistered voters could be considered valid. Courts have rejected laws that mandate that those gathering petitions for ballot initiatives have to be registered voters, but have never tested the proposition for petitions for candidates to get on the ballot. However, this is considered less of a sure thing by Sarpolus because he notes that a judge may not allow it to apply retroactively.

If Conyers makes the ballot, he is expected to roll over Sheffield, who was arraigned in a domestic-violence case in February and has yet to file a fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission. The challenger’s website is rudimentary and features a résumé with “professional references.” One of those references was former Mayor Archer, who is backing Conyers. Archer seemed a little surprised to be listed, telling The Daily Beast “I find that to be sort of innocent and OK.” The former mayor noted that Sheffield had run a neighborhood city hall during his administration and “did a very fine job and was very effective.”

The question, though, is what happens if Conyers doesn’t make the ballot.

Things become a lot tougher if the incumbent has to run as a write-in. In that situation, “Sheffield doesn’t have to be that formidable if [only] his name is on the ballot,” according to Michigan political consultant Joe DiSano. He thought the 84-year-old Conyers would have to greatly ramp up his political operation and start raising a lot of money right away to run a successful write-in campaign.

But a winning write-in campaign isn’t impossible, especially in Detroit. The Motor City’s current mayor, Mike Duggan, won his primary after being booted off the ballot due to a technicality. Like Conyers, Duggan had been the frontrunner all along and was aided by a huge financial advantage. Sarpolus sees optimism in that result, telling The Daily Beast “write-ins are only of consequence when people don’t know who you are. If you educate the voters, make things clear, and they do it correct 90 percent of the time.”

DiSano was skeptical of the Duggan comparison, noting “while there’s a lot of respect for Conyers... he’s not sure there’s any residual feelings that congressman is being mistreated,” as opposed to Duggan’s campaign where many felt that Duggan was “screwed over.” Archer also thought the Duggan analogy was imprecise. Instead, he compared Conyers’ plight to that of former Washington, D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, who won a successful write-in campaign for reelection in 2002 after campaign issues kept him off the ballot. Archer, though, echoed Sapolus’s analysis saying Conyers can win “if he wants it and absolutely, I believe he wants it.”

Conyers has faced competitive races in the recent past. In 2012, after redistricting, the incumbent faced ++a tough primary challenge, but in the words of DiSano “there was an all-hands-on-deck intervention to make sure he got over the hump.” The congressman eventually won handily but one Democratic insider in Michigan noted that even if Conyers eventually makes the ballot, this fiasco has “weakened him permanently” in the future. The insider went on to point out for “the last few cycles people have thought about challenging him and now the game’s on.”