Has Attorney General Bill Schuette Violated Election Law?

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette announced last week his decision to run for governor in 2018, but his slogan as “the jobs governor” raises the question of whether he is representing himself as the incumbent and thus violating the state’s election law.

In his announcement and his campaign video on his Facebook page, Schuette says he is “tired of Michigan families being forced to settle for less” – a direct hit to Governor Rick Snyder – and that “it’s time to win again.”

A speaker in his ad goes on to say, “Bill Schuette. The jobs governor.” Schuette has continued to run with that line on social media, too, using “#JobsGovernor” or “#JobsGov”. Of course, Schuette is not governor, and – at least in his current position – has not been directly responsible for economic development.

At hand is the issue that Michigan election law states, “Any person who advertises or uses in any campaign material … the words incumbent, re-elect, re-election or otherwise indicates, represents or gives the impression that a candidate for public office is the incumbent when in fact the candidate is not the incumbent is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable as provided in section 934.”

That punishment is a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment in the county jail for a term not exceeding 90 days, or both “in the discretion of the court,” the law states.

A message left with the Schuette campaign to discuss the issue was not returned.

Mark Brewer, a Michigan campaign finance and election lawyer, said the exact phrasing, punctuation, capitalization and grammar are all key components as to whether Schuette’s slogan indeed constitutes a violation of the state’s election law.

“The law is very clear. You can’t represent yourself as an incumbent or imply you’re an incumbent,” he said.

Brewer said such a case would have to be enforced by local prosecutors. An individual or group would file a complaint about a sign or a piece of literature, and the prosecutor will review the case. If the prosecutor finds that a possible violation exists, they reach out to the offending candidate and tell them they need to change it, he said.

“Every case I’m aware of, the literature gets changed,” Brewer said.

In this instance, it’s Schuette’s campaign video and announcer who doesn’t use the proper verbiage. But that’s no matter, Brewer said.

“It doesn’t have to be the candidate themselves,” he said. “The candidate is responsible for the conduct of the campaign.”

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson