Far-right conspiracists face more legal battles over voter-suppression robocalls


Police officers surround Jacob Wohl as he taunts protesters during a “Trump/Pence Out Now” rally at Black Lives Matter plaza Aug. 27 in Washington, DC.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman have made names for themselves on the internet as vocal far-right conspiracy theorists and orchestrating over-the-top media stunts. Over the past couple of months, as the election has neared, the duo have set their sights on Black voters. 

Wohl, 22, and Burkman, 54, reportedly created and funded a robocall campaign that placed about 85,000 calls nationwide falsely warning recipients that voting by mail could subject them to arrest on outstanding warrants, debt collection and forced vaccination. Those actions resulted in multiple felony charges brought by the state of Michigan on Oct. 1 and a civil lawsuit filed last week. 

On Thursday, lawyers filed an additional motion for a temporary restraining order against Wohl and Burkman aiming to bar them from making any more robocalls before the election.

“We are very concerned that they can continue with voter intimidation,” said David Brody, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that joined Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe in bringing the civil lawsuit. “We want to make sure that no one is deprived of their right to vote because of their malevolent activities.”

Voter suppression happens every election and the 2020 election cycle is no different. Reports of misinformation and foreign interference being spread through social media sites is a daily occurrence. Robocalls, deceptive mailers and systemic disenfranchisement, like cuts to early voting and voter ID laws, have also taken place. Black voters have been particularly susceptible to suppression, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That’s because in many cases they’re specifically targeted, like with Wohl and Burkman’s ploy.

“It’s just another case of 150 years of trying to disenfranchise Black and brown people of their rights to vote,” said Robert Sanders, law professor and chair of the national security department at the University of New Haven. “It used to be a klansman on a horse with a gun, now it’s a computer or a telephone.”

Wohl and Burkman’s recorded robocall message they used on Black voters warned them of being “finessed into giving your private information to the man” and urged them to “beware of vote by mail.” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights says the misinformation in the calls was based on “systemic inequities that are particularly likely to resonate with and intimidate Black voters.”

Both men now face four felony counts, including conspiring to intimidate voters in violation of election law and using a computer to commit crimes, according to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. 

The civil lawsuit brought last week alleges Wohl and Burkman violated the Voting Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The firms filed the suit on behalf of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and eight registered voters in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania who received the robocalls. The suit was filed in US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“This is about putting an end to confronting this racist, dangerous campaign of lies intended to discourage people from freely casting their ballots,” Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said in a statement

While Wohl and Burkman were ordered by the state of Michigan to not participate in any more robocalls, Brody is worried it could still be happening. He declined to comment on what evidence he has regarding such calls.

Wohl and Burkman are adamant supporters of President Donald Trump and are known for internet and in-real-life hijinks. They’ve carried out fake “news” conferences claiming Sen. Elizabeth Warren had an affair with a 24-year-old US Marine and that special counsel Robert Mueller was involved in sexual misconduct. Both allegations are false. 

Wohl made headlines last year when he was banned from Twitter for setting up fake accounts to spread falsehoods about people, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Rep. Ilhan Omar. And the Washington Post revealed in September that the newspaper was duped into falsely reporting the FBI raided Burkman’s Arlington, Virginia, home. The “raid” was actually a staged event featuring actors recruited by Wohl.

The attorney for Wohl and Burkman didn’t return a request for comment.

CNET’s Steven Musil contributed to this report.

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