WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, March 8, a federal judge ruled that a robocall operation led by two conspiracy theorists ahead of the 2020 election violated Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870, the Civil Rights Act and New York civil rights laws. In October 2020, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and several voters filed a lawsuit against Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl (who both pled guilty to telecommunications fraud in Ohio and are facing felony charges in Michigan as of November 2022), Burkman’s lobbying firm and Project 1599 (a right-wing political organization founded by Burkman and Wohl). The lawsuit alleged that the defendants “engaged in a disinformation campaign by bombarding lawfully registered voters with robocalls containing blatant lies about mail-in voting in order to intimidate those voters into not exercising their right to vote in the November 3, 2020 election.” The plaintiffs argued that the robocalls targeted areas in Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania with high populations of Black voters in violation of Section 11(b) of the VRA, which prohibits voter intimidation, and the Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibits individuals from using force to prevent, intimidate, or threaten “any citizen who is lawfully entitled to vote.” In May 2021, the New York attorney general’s office intervened in the case, alleging that 5,500 New Yorkers were targeted through the robocalls in violation of federal and state law. Today, a federal court found that Wohl and Burkman “engaged in illegal activity by violating both federal and state law, including the VRA, the KKK Act, the Civil Rights Act” and New York law.
The robocall at issue in the case stated: “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 for credit card companies to collect outstanding debts?” To further intimidate Black voters who may be hesitant towards vaccines, the message continued: “The [Center for Disease Control] is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines.” In the order, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and found that the defendants “agreed to engage in the voter suppression operation via the Robocall, knowingly engaged in this conspiracy, and took overt steps to effectuate the plan. That Defendants engaged in a conspiracy is clear.” The judge determined that the defendants’ scheme “was intimidating, threatening, or coercive towards voters, especially Black voters, by warning of several specific and foreboding consequences of voting by mail.” Further, based on the evidence presented in the case, the judge found that “the Robocall was a calculated attempt to deter Black voters by exploiting fears and stereotypes, and not merely the expression of an opinion.” Today’s opinion is a victory for the voters who were harmed by this suppressive scheme and hopefully will prevent bad actors from further engaging in voter intimidation.