"I feel bamboozled": How Kanye's campaign allegedly stole voters' signatures to get on the ballot

Kaney West's head with a hand above it rubbing a voters' ballot on his forehead depicting how he all...
[Illustration by Dewey Bryan Saunders]
Originally Published: 

Kanye West's presidential campaign continues to be marred by allegations of fraud and deceptive tactics. Voters in several states allege that they were fooled into signing to put him on the ballot. Now, a Mic investigation has uncovered evidence that West's campaign team may have broken election laws in Missouri while gathering signatures for him there. Voters who signed his campaign's petitions have filed complaints alleging they were lied to and told they were instead signing to keep West off the ballot.

From the moment West announced he was running on July 4, his campaign has been suspected of being nothing more than a late attempt to ensure Donald Trump's re-election. The president’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner were visiting Wyoming over the Fourth of July weekend, where Kanye currently lives on a 1,400-acre ranch in the small town of Cody. Associates of West later told Forbes that Kanye claims he and Kushner — whom The New York Times called Trump’s “de facto campaign manager” — speak “almost daily.” In the same interview, these sources described the reverse psychology techniques Kushner is apparently using to keep West in the race; Kanye has told several people that “Jared’s scared and doesn’t want me to run because he knows that I can win,” according to Forbes.

The worst interpretation of this scenario is that Kushner is intentionally exploiting West's well-publicized bipolar disorder at a time when those close to Kanye are reportedly acknowledging that he is in the throes of a serious manic episode. Still, West himself confirmed he is running as a spoiler to try and block former Vice President Joe Biden from winning the White House. “I’m not denying it; I just told you,” he admitted to Forbes in a July interview. “I would run as a Republican if Trump wasn’t there. I will run as an independent if Trump is there.”

Kanye West with President Trump and Jared Kushner at the White House in 2018. [The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images]

Kanye has only qualified for the ballot in 12 states. Oklahoma, Louisiana and Colorado required filing fees to be paid, but no signatures from voters. Vermont required neither. Almost all the rest had very low signature thresholds: Minnesota (2000); Iowa (1500); Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi and Utah (1000 each); and Tennessee (275). West’s petitions are still subject to challenge in Kentucky, the final state where he filed on Sept. 4.

It seems that Kanye’s fledgling campaign operation responded to the lack of interest in his candidacy by allegedly trying to scam their candidate's way onto the ballot, according to voters in multiple states who have encountered signature-gatherers reportedly working for his campaign. Mic spoke with voters in Missouri about the West campaign’s alleged fraud.

A pattern of deception

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced Aug. 25 that West would not appear on the ballot in the state. County election boards had only been able to verify 6,557 valid signatures for West — far below the 10,000 he needed, Ashcroft said. But a total of 11,629 signatures were submitted, most of them gathered in the St. Louis area.

Missouri was only the latest state where West came up short. He missed filing deadlines or did not file in 29 states. He withdrew his New Jersey nominating petition after more than 700 of his 1,327 signatures were challenged, many of which appeared to have been signed in the same handwriting. He was denied ballot access in Illinois after the state Board of Elections found only 1,200 of the 3,128 names his campaign submitted were valid. He was rejected from the ballot due to insufficient signatures in Montana and West Virginia, and in Ohio because of mismatched paperwork.

In Wisconsin — perhaps the most critical swing state in 2020 — voters have filed affidavits alleging they were tricked into signing West’s campaign petitions, after being asked to sign “to support increasing minority representation” and to ensure “people were registered to vote.” The signatures on the Wisconsin petition were challenged on the grounds that some were fake, leading a lawyer for West to argue that the burden of proof should be on challengers to show petition signers like “Mickey Mouse” and “Bernie Sanders” weren’t who they claimed to be. On Aug. 20, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted 5-1 in a bipartisan decision to keep West off the ballot because his petitions were filed late. His campaign is suing to overturn this ruling, although the Wisconsin Supreme Court has already allowed absentee ballots to be sent out to voters without Kanye's name on them.

Similar reports of trickery have surfaced in other states, including Minnesota and Virginia, where it was revealed that several voters had allegedly been deceived into signing up to serve as his electors. In Arizona, Kanye's campaign hired a small army of signature-gatherers to be on the ground for two weeks. Social media exploded with complaints of widespread deception after voters were allegedly asked to sign for “independent candidates,” “independent women's voices,” and Kanye’s vice presidential pick Michelle Tidball, all without mentioning West. At the University of Arizona, students claim that they were told they were signing to legalize marijuana in a bait-and-switch petition scheme. Judges in both Arizona and Virginia ruled Sept. 3 that Kanye would not appear on their ballots. His appeal in Arizona, another of this year’s most important swing states, was denied by the Arizona Supreme Court.

But in Missouri, West's campaign team may have crossed the line from deception to outright illegality by allegedly violating state election laws that prohibit petition signature fraud.

On July 26, residents of St. Louis began posting online and alleged that they had been asked to sign a petition to keep Kanye off the ballot, when in fact the document they’d signed was to get him on the ballot. ”THROW EVERY PEN YOU GOT AT ME RIGHT NOW,” is how respected local DJ and St. Louis voter Van Coleman reacted to the opportunity to block West, per an enthusiastic tweet he sent. But New York magazine contributor and Kanye watcher Ben Jacobs pointed out in response: “There is no such thing as a petition to keep people off the ballot in Missouri,” and Coleman’s tweet had come the day before the deadline to submit candidates’ nominating petitions.

“I got duped into signing that sh--,” Coleman tweeted once he realized what had happened. ”F--- Kanye West forever ... I mean that.”

“I feel bamboozled”

Members of Kanye’s campaign who gathered signatures in St. Louis staked out grocery stores and other high-traffic locations, according to voters who spoke with Mic. They appear to have targeted mostly young, Black voters in particular, as four of the five voters Mic spoke with are Black voters in their 20s and 30s. (Coleman is as well, though he didn't respond to request for comment from Mic. Additionally, several of the St. Louis neighborhoods where West's campaign's signature gatherers were working, per voters who spoke with Mic, have significant African American populations: Central West End is 29% Black with 55% of residents below the age of 35, while the Downtown neighborhood is 54% Black and 60% of residents are below the age of 35.)

Coleman said on Twitter that he encountered the campaign worker who allegedly solicited his signature under false pretenses outside a Schnucks supermarket located on Lindell Boulevard, near Central West End. In the circulator’s affidavit on the petition signed by Coleman, this worker identified himself as Tyler Merkle of Columbia, Missouri. Mic reviewed the West campaign petitions, which showed Merkle gathered 638 signatures from residents of St. Louis alone, plus 103 from residents of other counties, for a total of 741 statewide. All five voters contacted for this story whose signature was obtained by Merkle claimed Merkle asked them to sign to keep Kanye off the ballot.

Cortney Jones, her sister Tomika, and her fiancé Corey Wash had just finished shopping at the Schnucks when she says Merkle called out to them as they left the store. “We walked out and there was a man who had a table, and he said, ‘Would you like to sign my petition?’” Jones tells Mic. “I asked, ‘What is it for?’ And he said, ‘It’s to keep Kanye West off the ballot.’ So me and my fiancé signed.”

The petition turned in by Tyler Merkle showing Cortney Jones's signature. [Obtained from the Missouri Secretary of State's office by the author]

Jones filed a complaint with Ashcroft’s office on Aug. 7. “I feel bamboozled,” she says, “because it’s that easy to lie to get me to sign something for their preference. It really makes me feel angry, because it went against what I wanted. I am not for Kanye West for anything.” Jones claims that she couldn’t see the entire petition page when she signed it, either: “He had the papers flipped over and just had where you sign” visible for her to read, she says.

In a separate complaint, one voter alleged that Merkle offered her a choice of petitions to sign. “He asked me if I was for or against Kanye West being on the ballot,” the 64-year-old St. Louis resident stated in her complaint. “He made it seem there were separate petitions for this. I asked to sign the ‘Against’ petition. He walked over to one and said sign this one. I asked if this is the ‘Against’ petition and he said ‘Yes.’ I signed it quickly without carefully inspecting it as he was leaning towards me with his hand over the upper part of the petition and [I] felt he was too close so I backed away from him.”

Screenshot of a voter's complaint. [Obtained from the Missouri Secretary of State's office by the author]
Screenshot of a voter's complaint. [Obtained from the Missouri Secretary of State's office by the author]

Elaine Larson, a St. Louis mental health professional, tells Mic that she signed what she thought was a petition to keep Kanye off the ballot because she was concerned about “his mental health and stability.” Similar to Jones, she also claims that she couldn’t see the whole petition because its pages were folded back over a clipboard. “You kind of expect people to be somewhat honest about what you’re signing,” says Larson.

Besides the official complaints of petition signature fraud, voters posted reports online about West’s campaign workers using deceptive tactics all over St. Louis. Attorney Chelsea Merta said on Twitter that while she was shopping at the Hampton Village Schnucks, in the city’s Southampton neighborhood, “someone tried to sneakily ask me to sign a petition to ‘add independent candidates to the ballot.’ Upon further look, it was for Kanye West.“

The petition turned in by Tyler Merkle showing Elaine Larson's signature. [Obtained from the Missouri Secretary of State's office by the author]

Tommy English, a community health worker in the area, said on Twitter that he was asked the same thing at the Tower Grove Farmers Market in south St. Louis. He added: “They were definitely trying to get signatures by just asking people where they were registered and then asking them to sign with no info.”

“I heard that they used that deceptive tactic in multiple places,” tweeted photographer Torrey Park. “People were complaining about it in the Tower Grove South Facebook group,” Park alleged. St. Louis voter James Overholt said on Twitter that he ”had a very Republican-looking guy knock on my door with the petition. He said it was for ‘Kane West.’”

Even the chair of the Democratic Party in St. Louis was approached by petitioners for Kanye's campaign. Michael Butler, 34, is the first African American millennial to be elected St. Louis recorder of deeds. The West campaign “had ... signature-gatherers outside of City Hall, where I work,” Butler tells Mic. “They asked me, ‘Do you want to sign a petition to improve the Black community and put a good candidate on the ballot?’ Once I looked and saw it was to put Kanye West on, I said, ‘No thanks.’”

In an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning local journalist Mark Konkol, three members of the team who worked on West’s campaign's effort in Missouri described how they had previously helped run a similar operation for his campaign in Illinois. Brothers Zach, Bobby, and Albert Livas of Libertyville, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, and their crew of independent contractors were paid a premium rate of $10 per signature, nearly double the usual rate. The Livas brothers were called in a day and a half before the July 20 deadline and collected more than 2,000 of the 3,128 Illinois signatures submitted — 1,928 of which were later thrown out.

On July 24, the Livas brothers and their crew were dispatched by West’s campaign to St. Louis, they told Konkol, in advance of the July 27 deadline to submit petitions in Missouri.

Republicans get in on it

Another individual of interest in the Missouri operation is St. Louis-based GOP operative Gregg Keller, who publicly acknowledges his role as Kanye’s campaign adviser. Atlas Strategy Group, the consulting firm run by Keller, has been paid nearly $1.3 million, according to West’s overdue campaign finance report filed Sept. 4 with the Federal Elections Commission. He was listed as the point of contact for West’s campaign in the paperwork that was filed to get the rapper on the Arkansas ballot. He also reportedly helped coordinate the West campaign’s signature-gathering effort in Ohio, admitted to helping in Kentucky, and assisted his highly coordinated and allegedly deceptive ballot access effort in Arizona. Arizona and Kentucky are another two states where voters have alleged that they were asked to sign West’s campaign petitions but were told they were signing to keep him off the ballot.

Keller is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union, a former paid adviser to Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s successful 2018 campaign, and the former chair of the Missouri Victory Committee, which is the state’s main Republican campaign arm. Keller was even under consideration to be Trump’s campaign manager in 2015. He did not respond to inquiries from Mic or the Kansas City Star, which also reported on his alleged involvement, about whether he played a role in the attempt to get West on the ballot in Missouri. West's campaign also did not respond to a request for comment from Mic for this story.

But Gregg Keller is just one of the many GOP figures around the country who are apparently scrambling to help Kanye. Lane Ruhland, a lawyer who has represented Trump's campaign, submitted Kanye's signatures in Wisconsin, and his lawsuit to stay on the ballot there is being handled by former Minnesota GOP secretary/treasurer Erick Kaardal. In more than a dozen states, Kanye's signature-gathering was farmed out to Let the Voters Decide, a petition firm run by Mark Jacoby, who was charged with voter fraud in 2008 while working for the California Republican Party.

Their collective eagerness to lend a hand is being fueled by the same thinking that likely led Kushner to lure him into the race: the questionable assumption that West will draw more votes from Biden than he will from Trump. Polling conducted shortly after West first announced his support for Trump in 2017 actually showed the Black voters most enthusiastic about a possible Kanye candidacy were the very small number who “strongly approved” of Trump.

Getting away with it?

When first questioned by Mic about voters claiming West’s campaign had deceived them, Ashcroft’s office pointed to a statute that seems to prohibit soliciting signatures under false pretenses. “There is a penalty if you’re a signature-gatherer,” said Maura Browning, the communications director for the Missouri secretary of state, in a phone call with Mic. “So if somebody says, ‘This is a petition that does exactly the opposite of what the person is actually signing,’ [then per] state law, Chapter 116.090, ‘A person is guilty of the crime of petition signature fraud if they cause a voter to sign a petition other than the one the voter intended to sign.’” Petition signature fraud in Missouri under this statute is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine.

After voters filed official complaints, however, the secretary of state’s general counsel looked more closely at the state election code and realized this statute might not have been violated after all. “That would appear to be applicable to this allegation,” Browning said in a subsequent e-mail to Mic, but then she pointed to a separate part of Missouri state law that appears to say the crime of petition signature fraud is only relevant in elections on statewide ballot measures.’” In another e-mailed statement to Mic, Ashcroft’s office said, “We are reviewing state law and various election offenses in Chapter 115 (Election Authorities and Conduct of Elections) to determine if the election complaints received are election offenses that our office has the authority to investigate.”

Was the Kanye campaign’s shady signature-gathering team able to exploit a loophole in Missouri law? Will Tyler Merkle or anyone else involved in the effort to put West on the ballot in Missouri be charged with petition signature fraud? Right now, it’s unclear. But perhaps more significantly, the team found little popular support in Missouri for Kanye’s candidacy anyway — similar to how voters nationwide have reacted. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted last month found West polling at only 2% among all registered voters, and 2% among Black voters, with a 9-point national lead for Joe Biden over Trump with or without Kanye on the ballot.

West’s campaign appears to have resorted to widespread deception and stealing signatures from voters to try to get the bubble next to his name in Missouri. And even then they fell short — a predictable outcome for his haphazard attempt to be a spoiler in 2020. His last-minute ballot access bids have collapsed wherever they have faced the slightest scrutiny, leaving in their wake a number of voters in many states who feel they have been bamboozled and duped by Kanye West.

“F--- that dude,” Coleman tweeted. “On my soul.”