A federal judge has loosened Michigan’s requirements for candidates seeking to appear on the August primary, overriding Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s refusal to extend the deadline because of her stay-home executive order. 

Detroit U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg ruled Monday that candidates who were collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot can submit 50% of the required number of signatures by 5 p.m. May 8, instead of the Tuesday deadline the state had insisted on. 

Berg, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, also ordered Director of Elections Jonathan Brater to develop rules within 72 hours to collect and submit ballot petition signatures electronically. 

U.S. House candidates such as Eric Esshaki, a Republican candidate for Michigan’s 11th District, had until Tuesday to collect and file 1,000 signatures from registered voters in order to have their names appear on the Aug. 4 primary ballot.  

Judicial candidates have their own petition thresholds to hit, which vary depending on what office the candidate is seeking. Two non-incumbent candidates for judge recently joined Esshaki’s lawsuit. 

Most state House candidates pay a nominal filing fee in lieu of signatures and would not be overly affected by the decision.

Whitmer’s stay-home orders triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult to collect those signatures in the usual places, such as outside grocery stores, rallies, churches or malls. 

“Yet, the state insists on enforcing the signature-gathering requirements as if its Stay-at-Home Order responding to the ongoing pandemic had no impact on the rights of candidates and the people who may wish to vote for them,” Berg said. 

The state’s insistence on the Tuesday deadline while also enforcing the stay-home order “operate in tandem to impose a severe burden on plaintiff’s ability to seek elected office.”

Those pressures violate Esshaki’s freedoms of speech and association as well as equal protection and due process, Berg said. 

Esshaki celebrated his “defeat” of Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s “efforts to stifle democracy” in a statement Monday. 

“Today was a victory for protecting our constitutional rights,” Esshaki wrote. “It was a direct rebuke against Gov. Whitmer’s partisan actions seeking unlimited power.”

Whitmer said she wouldn’t use her powers to alter the deadline or requirement to make it on the primary ballot.

 “We know that these deadlines are critical in terms of keeping our elections on schedule,” the Democratic governor said when asked about the issue during a press conference.

In response to Whitmer’s statement, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted that she fully supports the “decision not to extend Michigan’s candidate filing deadline.”

As of 6 p.m. Friday, two U.S. Senate candidates — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Republican John James — and 34 U.S. House candidates — including the 12 incumbents actively running for re-election — had filed signatures, according to state records.

Esshaki, a registered nurse and lawyer, had collected only 700 of the required 1,000 signatures because of the stay home order. The Republican is seeking to run against incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills. 

Republican Whittney Williams, one of two other GOP candidates in the district who have filed signatures, has argued the deadline shouldn’t be changed.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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