Judge says Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman violated Voting Rights Act, KKK Act with 2020 voter suppression

Two conservative activists who robocalled Black voters as part of a voter suppression scheme during the 2020 election violated multiple federal and state civil rights laws, a judge ruled on Wednesday.

In a 111-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman used thousands of robocalls in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois to spread false and misleading information about mail-in voting in a “calculated” effort to “deter Black voters by exploiting fears and stereotypes.”

“The Court recognizes that the free exchange of ideas on issues of public concern and the ability to engage in robust political discussion constitute the foundations of a democratic society,” Marrero wrote.

But, he added, evidence showed “that the neighborhoods that Defendants targeted were not accidental or random” and a reasonable jury would conclude the two men wanted to “deny the right to vote specifically to Black voters.”

The script from the calls allegedly read: “Mail-in voting sounds great, but did you know that if you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts?”

“The CDC is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines. Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail,” it continued.

Burkman and Wohl had pleaded guilty in October to a single count each of felony telecommunications fraud over the robocalls. They were sentenced in November to two years probation, six months of electronic monitoring and 500 hours of community service in a voter registration drive.

Marrero wrote this week that Wohl and Burkman’s actions also violated the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act, which enforces citizens’ right to vote under the 14th Amendment.

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed the lawsuit against Wohl and Burkman in May 2021 after a coalition of Black civic groups, including the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, brought the suit to her office. The group will next propose damages and penalties.

According to James’s office, Wohl and Burkman’s scheme reached approximately 5,500 New Yorkers. The robocalls were done under the “sham organization” Project 1599, according to James’s office, and the calls threatened and harassed Black communities with disinformation, including the false statement that mail-in voters would have their personal information shared with law enforcement, debt collectors and the government.

In a statement on Wednesday, James praised Marerro’s ruling for upholding “the most important cornerstone of our democracy.”

“Wohl and Burkman engaged in a disgraceful campaign to intimidate Black voters, using threats and lies to keep them from making their voices heard in an attempt to secure the election for their preferred presidential candidate,” said James. “I will always stand fierce in defense of New Yorkers’ right to vote, and anyone who attempts to take away that right will be met with the full force of the law.”

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