DETROIT (CN) - Three days after elections officials disqualified 24-term Congressman John Conyers from the August primary ballot, voters sued Michigan and Wayne County, claiming the requirement that signature-gatherers be registered voters is unconstitutional.
Conyers, 84, has represented Michigan's 13th or 14th Congressional District, in and around Detroit, since 1965.
Defendant Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett announced on Friday that Conyers fell 400 signatures short of the number needed to appear on the Democratic primary, because some of his signature-gatherers were not registered voters.
On Monday, Detroit residents Ederl Edna Moore and Tiara Willis-Pittman sued Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and the Wayne County Clerk in Federal Court.
"The United States Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and courts across the country have struck down voter registration requirements for petition circulators because such requirements violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of political association," the woman say in the lawsuit.
Moore, 72, worked on Conyers' first congressional campaign in 1964, "and has supported him ever since," she says in the complaint.
Willis-Pittman circulated nominating petitions for Conyers and collected more than 90 signatures for him in March this year. "Before circulating petitions, Ms. Willis-Pittman filled out a voter registration application and believed that she was registered to vote," the complaint states. "However, the County Clerk ultimately determined that her application had been either untimely filed or untimely processed and that Ms. Willis-Pittman was not, in fact, a registered voter at the time she collected signatures. Consequently, the Clerk's staff concluded that all of the signatures collected by Ms. Willis-Pittman were invalid."
Conyers' signature-gatherers collected 1,236 "valid" signatures, according to the lawsuit - 236 more than the required 1,000. "However, 644 signatures were subsequently disqualified after the Clerk's staff considered a challenge to the nominating petitions and concluded that, at the time the signatures were collected, some of the petition circulators were not registered voters," according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs, both registered to vote in Conyers' 13th District, seek declaratory judgment "that the registered voter requirement for petition circulators, set forth in M.C.L. § 168.544c(3), violates the First Amendment, both on its face and as applied in this instance, and they seek an injunction against further enforcement of the provision. They also seek an injunction ordering defendants to refrain from invalidating signatures on Congress Conyers' nominating petitions on the ground that the petition circulators were not registered to vote."
The plaintiffs claim that signature-gatherers collected more than 2,000 signatures for Conyers' nomination, of which 1,236 were declared valid. But on Friday, May 9, the Wayne County Clerk's Office announced that five signature-gatherers were not "properly registered to vote," according to the complaint.
It continues: "Upon information and belief, most, if not all of the five petition circulators had filled out voter registration forms before circulating the petitions, with the understanding and expectation that the person to whom they gave the forms would timely submit them to the appropriate clerk's office. Accordingly, they believed they were registered to vote and did not find out about the purported mix-up until the petition signatures were challenged.
"On May 9, 2014, the Wayne County Clerk's Office issued a staff report recommending that, under state law, 644 signatures collected by petition circulators who were not registered to vote must be invalidated. After invalidating the 644 signatures, only 592 valid signatures remained and the staff recommended that Congressman Conyers not be placed on the ballot.
"But for the state statute requiring that all petition gatherers be registered voters, M.C.L. §168.544c(3), Congressman Conyers would have had well more than 1000 valid signatures on the nominating petitions and would have qualified for the August primary ballot." (Citation to exhibit omitted.)
If the secretary of state, who is Republican, and the county clerk, who is a Democrat, determine that Conyers cannot appear on the August primary ballot, he could run as a write-in candidate in the primary or general election.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and an injunction placing Conyers on the ballot.
They are represented by Michael Steinberg with the ACLU.