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Progressive candidate Abdul El-Sayed has confusing defense of voting record

Abdul El-Sayed’s did not have a good week. And it’s not looking like it’s going to get better any time soon.

El-Sayed has captured the imagination of progressives who think he can bring a liberal agenda to Lansing and become the nation’s first Muslim-American governor. This past weekend, at a Democratic forum for Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates in Washtenaw County, there was a throng of excited folks all waiting to talk to him.

But, as Bridge Magazine first reported last week, there are serious issues relating to the 33-year old newcomer’s voting history that some elections lawyers are arguing could derail his campaign by showing he is ineligible to run.

The Michigan Constitution says in order to run for governor you have to have been a qualified elector in the state for 4 years. At issue is El-Sayed’s voting record when he lived in New York.

Here’s what we know: El-Sayed was born and raised in Michigan but he went to medical school and taught in New York for a few years. He voted in New York in 2012.

El-Sayed missed voting in the 2016 Democratic primary and he did not re-register to vote in Michigan until two weeks after that March 8th election.

That math does not work for him. And his explanation is messy.

El-Sayed says he tried to vote in Detroit twice on March 8th but that the lines at his precinct were too long. That story, however, is not backed up by data. The church where he says he tried to vote was a low-turnout precinct. There were no reported complaints of long lines at his precinct that day (which are typically well documented in Detroit).

Meanwhile, El-Sayed was not even registered to vote in Detroit. His last registered voting address in Michigan was in Ann Arbor.

There is also the real legal question about whether voting in New York invalidated his Michigan registration. The Michigan Bureau of Elections says it’s uncharted territory. If no one complained - if he was never officially removed - was he not a legal Michigan voter?

Instead of addressing the legal issue, the El-Sayed campaign’s reaction was to accuse Democrats who are questioning his bona fides as a candidate of being anti-Muslim bigots and racists.

This hasn’t made folks in Michigan Democratic circles very happy. And there’s no evidence to back this claim.

The campaign’s reaction has raised fears among Democratic leaders that this rift will trash their chances to stitch together a progressive-centrist coalition that can win in Michigan in November.

Let’s flashback to November 2016, when Republicans won a razor-thin presidential upset in Michigan, in part because disaffected progressives stayed home or voted for a third party.  

That’s just one reason why the state Democratic Party chair is calling on this legal issue to be settled. Chair Brandon Dillon asked last week El-Sayed to find a way to get into court to get a clear decision on his eligibility.

That will likely have to wait until El-Sayed files petition signatures, which will create the opportunity for someone to file a challenge. This will probably be a Democrat wanting to make sure the ticket isn’t torpedoed after the primary and before the November general election.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats would be if El-Sayed does win the primary and is then disqualified from the ballot before the general election. That could leave Democrats without a candidate on the November ballot.

In the meantime, El-Sayed would like to change the subject. He’d like to focus on policy and issues. But the fact is, candidates and campaigns live and fail on political and constitutional technicalities.

Stateside's conversation with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta, co-hosts of It's Just Politics.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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