Should Michigan have allowed Melissa Gilbert to withdraw from her Congressional race?

There’s always some high strangeness in election wrangling during the final stretch of an even numbered year and 2016 is no exception. Earlier today I looked at a request to bump one New York congressional election back to December and now we’ve got a second story out of Michigan which is equally strange. Former child actress and Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Gilbert was running for a seat in Congress from the 8th district this year for the Democrats, but she announced in the spring that she didn’t want to continue because of health concerns. (She reportedly had surgery for back and neck issues this month.) Unfortunately her announcement came too late for anyone else to get on the ballot and she won the primary anyway.

State Election Director Chris Thomas (conveniently enough appointed by a Democrat in the 1980s) decided to allow the Democrats to pull Gilbert from the ballot and simply replace her with assistant Macomb County prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli. The GOP challenged this before the state Board of Canvassers, but that decision has now been delivered in favor of the Democrats. (Fox News)

Michigan officials have declined state Republicans’ request to review a decision to allow “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert to withdraw as the Democratic nominee in an upcoming House race, due to health issues.

State GOP lawyers argued Michigan’s Board of Canvassers, not State Election Director Chris Thomas, should decide whether Gilbert can end her 8th Congressional District challenge to freshman GOP Rep. Mike Bishop.

These are the areas where state election laws become very murky. Anyone running for office should be allowed to drop out if they wish, a fact which I hope should go without saying. You can’t force someone to serve. But the parties have rules in place which the states recognize and enforce which determines who can appear on the ballot for each office and what steps they must go through to get there. Should Gilbert be allowed to drop out in a time frame which didn’t allow for a replacement through the normal process and then let her party simply substitute whomever they see fit without the voters in their party weighing in? This may be a case of the window being too short, really, because Gilbert announced that she was dropping out in May and the primary wasn’t until August 2nd. It seems as if the Democrats could have come up with somebody by then (and indeed they clearly had someone in mind) but state election laws didn’t allow enough time for such a change.

But by the same token, you can’t just have people dropping out whenever they feel like it and swap in replacements. What if someone doesn’t have health issues but instead has a scandal break out or is simply lagging badly in the polls? It’s patently unfair to allow their party to just yank them and put in a replacement who might stand a better chance of winning. That brings me back to one of the reasons the GOP cited in challenging the decision. They claimed that Gilbert “hadn’t adequately proved that she would be physically unfit to serve in Congress.” At first glance that sounds like a rather cheap line of attack because, as I said above, she should be able to drop out for no reason at all. But when we consider the rules for replacements, perhaps the candidate should be forced to show an unavoidable reason for quitting. The penalty for failing to do so would be an empty column for the Democrats in November.

But how are you supposed to prove that Gilbert’s medical issues are “too much” for her to serve in Congress? That’s really between her and her doctor. As I said at the top, this one is a mess. I’m sure it will play out with two candidates for voters to choose from, but the election is going to be tainted at this point.