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Can he or can’t he? Judge will decide whether El-Sayed is a legal candidate for governor

There is a legal question about whether Democrat Abdul El-Sayed is eligible to run for governor. But one thing that is not a question is the fact that the question is not settled, no matter how much the El-Sayed campaign might want to believe that’s the case.

Democrats are waiting on a decision from the Michigan Court of Claims. The issue is whether El-Sayed invalidated his Michigan voter registration by casting a ballot in New York in 2012.

The issue is not residency, but voter registration.

The Michigan Constitution says in order to be eligible to serve as governor, one must be a “qualified elector” in Michigan for four years.

People are not supposed to be registered to vote in two places. So, what happens when someone registered in Michigan registers and votes in another state? States do not do a good job of sharing when someone moves and registers to vote in a new place.

Bridge magazinefirst reported that El-Sayed voted in New York in 2012. That may have invalidated his voter registration in Michigan. If that’s the case, he would have been ineligible to legally vote in Michigan until he registered to again in Detroit in March of 2016. But it’s not clear what all the ramifications are when someone is registered in two places, as long as they only vote once.

Now, a state Court of Claims judge is being asked to decide whether or not El-Sayed is a four-year legal “elector” who is allowed under the Michigan Constitution to serve as governor.

Democratic leaders were concerned enough about this uncertainty earlier this year that they pushed El-Sayed to get a definitive answer on whether he’s eligible to serve. So the campaign took the question to the state Bureau of Elections by filing a lawsuit.

The state’s response to the El-Sayed lawsuit this past week: You’re suing the wrong party. State elections officials sayit’s not their job to interpret Michigan’s constitution.

The elections bureau is not doing anything to keep El-Sayed from running or to keep his name off the ballot.

The El-Sayed campaign quickly claimed that as vindication and victory.

But, if the Court of Claims goes with the state’s position, all that does is leave the question unsettled.

And if Democrats don’t get this settled before the primary, and El-Sayed wins on August 7th, Republicans, in all likelihood, will challenge his eligibility.

“That is the nightmare scenario,” Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon says. “That a candidate wins the primary, and then, even if they believe their eligibility is without question, that doesn’t stop Republicans from tying up the case in the courts when our candidate needs to be talking about how they’re going to make the lives of Michigan people better.”

And that’s why Democrats want this definitively settled. In the event of an El-Sayed nomination, Republicans would try to sow havoc with a legal challenge.

The continued controversy is no good for El-Sayed. The campaign’s legal brief says so: as long as the question is hanging out there, it gives undecided Democrats a reason to look elsewhere.

The controversy also continues to drive a wedge between so-called “establishment” Democrats and progressives who are inspired by El-Sayed’s candidacy. The campaign is quick to call folks who raise the question of eligibility “establishment” tools, and worse.

Now, El-Sayed may well prevail on the issue. But nothing about the politics of this lingering question works to the benefit of Democrats or El-Sayed.

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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