Robocalls Target Black Voters With Disinformation, Fraudsters Burkman and Wohl Face Charges for Robocalls

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman hold a press conference in Arlington, Virginia, on November 1, 2018. (Photo: Jared Holt for Right Wing Watch)

In August, right-wing political operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman orchestrated tens of thousands of robocalls ​targeting Black voters in multiple states—calls that were chock full of disinformation about mail-in voting​. Last Wednesday, a federal judge in Manhattan said Wohl and Burkman engaged in “electoral terror” and ordered the hoaxers to call back the 85,000 people who they misled and inform them that their original robocall included false information.  

The robocalls in question began with a woman introducing herself as Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, which she called a “civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl.” She then suggested that police, credit card companies, and the CDC will use information from mail-in voting to track down voters for nefarious reasons. It ends with Taylor saying, “Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man; stay home safe and beware of vote by mail.”

After originally telling The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer that they were not behind the robocalls, Burkman and Wohl, who have orchestrated numerous disinformation campaigns, changed their tune. They did not contest that ​the robocalls ​were their doing but argued that the robocalls should be protected by the First Amendment. They also contended that they did not know how to target Black voters with the robocalls.

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero of New York’s Southern District found that the information in the robocalls were “manifestly false and meant to intimidate citizens from exercising voting rights.” He barred the fraudsters from sending mass text messages or ​new robocalls ​of this kind, but ordered them to send a remedial robocall to recipients of the first with the following message: 

At the direction of a United States district court, this call is intended to inform you that a federal court has found that the message you previously received regarding mail-in voting from Project 1599, a political organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, contained false information that has had the effect of intimidating voters, and thus interfering with the upcoming presidential election, in violation of federal voting-rights laws.

According to Gothamist, the duo claimed to have sent the remedial message mandated by the judge to all 85,000 people they misled by Thursday’s deadline of 5 p.m. but only showed evidence of 29,000 to the court. Gothamist also reported that emails obtained by the plaintiffs’ attorneys show that Burkman and Wohl specifically targeted Black voters.

The day before Judge Marrero sent his order, Burkman and Wohl were indicted in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland and East Cleveland, on charges of telecommunications fraud and bribery​; consequently, they now face ​a possible prison sentence of up to 18 years. In Michigan, the duo face criminal charges as well for targeting 12,000 Detroit residents with the ​disinformation robocall. (Detroit’s population is 79 percent Black.)​ They ​were released on a $100,000 bond for their actions in that state and face up to eight years in ​a Michigan prison. In October, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said similar robocalls were ​also made to voters living in neighborhoods with significant minority populations in Pennsylvania and Illinois. 

In 2016, the Trump campaign conducted a voter suppression campaign aimed at keeping Black voters home on Election Day, and Russia conducted its own ​social-media campaign targeting Black voters. While the 2020 Trump campaign has made some overtures to Black voters and Black celebrities, it has largely re-upped its 2016 playbook, trying to convince disaffected Black voters to stay home. Right-wing activists and political operatives have followed suit, Right Wing Watch reported.

Burkman and Wohl have long supported the president, most frequently by going after individuals the president considers to be political enemies, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and special counsel Robert Mueller.

Voters have received an uptick in similar robocalls—some 10 million—in recent days, encouraging voters to “stay safe and stay home,” ​say experts who track the telecom industry​, as reported in the Washington Post. The Post ​notes that those calls may be foreign in origin, according to the tech company YouMail.

Residents of Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black city, have also received robocalls falsely claiming that voters who want to avoid long lines should vote Wednesday. (Tuesday is the last day to vote). Voters in Dearborn, Michigan, have also received text messages falsely claiming that there are ​problems with ballot sensor​s and that voters must vote for the opposite candidate to have their vote counted. ​Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no such issues.