Michigan catches robocall spreading disinformation about voting by mail

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Two right-wing scam artists known for their bumbling political stunts allegedly paid for a robocall targeting Detroit voters with disinformation about voting by mail in the upcoming presidential election, according to an audio file released Thursday by Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

In a recording of the call Benson’s office posted on social media, a woman’s voice can be heard suggesting, falsely, that people who cast ballots through the mail will have their personal identifying information added to police and debt-collection databases, and that the Centers for Disease Control will use mailed ballots to “track people for mandatory vaccines.”

Benson said the source of the call is unknown. But its narrator discloses that it was paid for by the 1599 Project, which claims to be a civil-rights organization, but is the outfit of Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, who are better known for attempts to smear Democratic politicians that often end in self-humiliation.

Benson wrote in a tweet that she has referred the call to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, and that the pair will “use every tool at our disposal to dispel this and other false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted and harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression.”

Like nearly all states this year, Michigan is attempting to greatly expand its use of mail-in voting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to avoid large crowds gathering at polling places and risking the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Absentee ballots accounted for about 60% of the 2.5 million votes cast in Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary, and Benson has said she expects as many if not more voters to use absentee ballots in the Nov. 3 general election.

But election administration and cybersecurity professionals have issued warnings that disinformation campaigns — especially those attempting to question the reliability of absentee and mail-in voting — pose the greatest threat to election security. And fueled by President Donald Trump, who frequently claims without evidence that mailed ballots are inherently fraudulent, despite voting by mail in Florida himself, some other Republicans have followed his lead.

“This is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote,” Benson said in an emailed statement. “The call preys on voters’ fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system – at a moment of historic reckoning and confrontation of systemic racism and the generational trauma that results – and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting. The Attorney General and I will use every tool at our disposal to dispel this false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted and harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression.”

Burkman and Wohl are infamous in political media for sensational claims of having career-ending dirt on Democratic politicians — including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — only for those claims to disintegrate rapidly under the lightest scrutiny. They have also attempted, unsuccessfully, to impugn Robert Mueller, the former special council investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and, more recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime National Institutes of Health official who has angered the White House with his unvarnished assessments of the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

Burkman, who is nominally a lobbyist in the U.S. Senate, is also known for inserting himself into the 2016 murder case of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and promoting baseless conspiracy theories through an independent investigation that collapsed after his business partner shot him. The 22-year-old Wohl spent his teenage years attempting to run hedge funds that ran afoul of federal and state securities regulators.

In a brief phone interview, Wohl denied that he and Burkman are behind the robocall, and suggested that they are the ones being targeted.

“We don’t know about it,” he told StateScoop. “We’re the subject of pranks all the time.”

In a press release, Nessel blasted the robocall for using racist tropes to deter minority groups from voting.

“This is an unfortunate but perfect example of just how low people will go to undermine this election,” she said. “This robocall is fraught with scare tactics designed to intimidate Black voters – and we are already working hard to find the bad actors behind this effort.”

Nessel also said her office’s team that investigates fraudulent robocalls is reviewing the recording, and has alerted its counterparts in other states.

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Detroit, disinformation, election security, Jocelyn Benson, Michigan, scam, vote by mail
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