Detroit and Chicago hit with misleading and racist robocalls discouraging mail-in voting, officials say
Posted August 27, 2020 4:40 p.m. EDT
CNN — Elected officials in Michigan and Illinois say a racially charged robocall has been targeting voters this week with misinformation about mail-in balloting.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted out a recording of the call on Thursday. The call falsely claims that mail-in voters will have their personal information shared with law enforcement "to track down old warrants" and that they could be added to a list for "mandatory vaccines."
False rumors about police departments using elections to crack down on warrants and tickets have historically been part of efforts to intimidate minority voters and suppress turnout.
"My office has received a recording of a robocall targeting Detroit voters using racially-charged stereotypes and false information to deter voting by mail," Benson said. "It is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote."
Benson, who is a Democrat, also said she is working with the Michigan attorney general to "seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted and harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression."
The robocalls hitting Detroit also targeted voters in Chicago, according to Alderman Pat Dowell, a Democrat, who posted on Facebook that she personally got a call at home Wednesday night. Dowell told CNN on Thursday that she informed the Chicago Board of Elections about the robocalls and would be warning her constituents about the misinformation.
"This was an attempt to suppress, in my case, my community, an African American community, solidly Democratic, suppress voter turnout in this upcoming general election," Dowell said. "It's unfortunate that the powers that be, or whoever is behind this, would stoop so low to keep people from voting their choice this election, which is very, very important."
It's not clear how many people in Chicago and Detroit received the misleading calls.
Mail-in voting will play a larger role than ever this year, with an influx of mail ballots because of the pandemic. Democratic and Republican officials across the country have expanded access to mail-in voting in recent months and say the method is secure and includes extensive paper trails. President Donald Trump has railed against mail-in voting, falsely saying that it is "rigged" with widespread fraud.
The voice on the robocall says it was sponsored by a group founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, two infamous conservative activists who have spent years perpetrating hoaxes and false smears against Democratic lawmakers and other perceived political opponents of Trump. Dowell posted a photo of her caller ID showing "Jack Burkman" when she got the robocall on her home phone.
Benson, the Michigan official, said in a statement that "the source of the call is still unknown," but she pointed out that the robocall claimed to originate from Burkman and Wohl, whom she called "two political operatives with a known reputation for spreading misinformation in an effort to gain notoriety."
In a brief interview with CNN, Wohl denied that he or Burkman were responsible for the misleading and racist calls, and said they only learned about them after Burkman started receiving angry messages from people who saw his number on their caller ID.
"We've never done any robocalls," Wohl said. "We are categorically uninvolved."
Burkman did not respond to messages seeking comment on Thursday.
State election officials are largely on their own when it comes to dealing with false claims about the voting process, including mail-in voting, when they are promoted by political operatives or candidates.
While there has been some outreach by the Department of Homeland Security in recent months, multiple state officials tell CNN that there is no federal guidance in place when it comes to disinformation coming from within the US, leaving states to develop their own protocols.