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Far-Right Activists Charged Over Robocalls That Allegedly Targeted Minority Voters

A ballot drop box in Detroit where voters can drop off absentee ballots instead of using the mail.
A ballot drop box in Detroit where voters can drop off absentee ballots instead of using the mail.

Michigan's attorney general filed felony charges Thursday against two far-right activists who allegedly coordinated a series of racist robocalls that discouraged voters in Detroit and other cities from participating in the November election.

Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl are each being charged with four felony counts, including intimidating voters and conspiracy to commit an election law violation.

The robocalls came from a nonexistent group called the "1599 project" and falsely warned recipients that voting by mail would result in being "finessed into giving your private information to the man."

Burkman and Wohl are known far-right conspiracy theorists who promote disinformation online and have made attempts to frame public figures such as Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris and Dr. Anthony Fauci for various made-up scandals.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a press release that the calls were made in August to almost 12,000 residents with phone numbers from the 313 area code that covers Detroit. An investigation found that attorneys general in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois received complaints about similar phone calls being placed to cities with large minority populations.

"Any effort to interfere with, intimidate or intentionally mislead Michigan voters will be met with swift and severe consequences," Nessel wrote in a statement. "This effort specifically targeted minority voters in an attempt to deter them from voting in the November election."

In the calls, the robocaller told recipients to "beware of vote by mail" and falsely said that doing so would feed personal information into a database accessible to the police pursuing warrants, credit card companies collecting debts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aiming to track people for mandatory vaccines.

All of these claims are false, and the caller provides no evidence to back them. There is no evidence of widespread fraud associated with voting by mail.

Still, President Trump continues to sow doubts about voting by mail, without evidence.

Democrats are concerned about voter intimidation amid Republican efforts to dispatch tens of thousands of poll watchers across the country.

Until 2018, the Republican National Committee had been under a 1980s-era consent decree after a federal judge found Republicans had stationed off-duty police officers in some minority precincts and sent targeted mailings to minority voters warning about penalties for violating election laws.

That consent decree has now expired, allowing Republicans to organize poll watching and other "ballot-security" efforts.

Neither Burkman nor Wohl's attorney immediately responded to NPR's request for comment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.