- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2020

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan’s attorney general and secretary of state on Thursday were investigating what they called a racist robocall that falsely warns residents in majority-Black Detroit who vote by mail that they could be subject to arrest and debt collection.

In the recording, which a recipient provided to radio station WWJ, the caller claims to be from Project 1599, which was founded by conservative activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman. They denied involvement in the robocall.

The caller says if people vote by mail, their personal information will be part of a public database that police can use to track down old warrants and that credit card companies can use to collect outstanding debt. It was not known how many people were targeted with the call, which urges listeners to not give private information “to the man.”

“This is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote,” Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said in a statement. “The call preys on voters’ fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system - at a moment of historic reckoning and confrontation of systemic racist and the generational trauma that results - and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting.”

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel said her office was working to find the “bad actors” behind the call. The state’s robocall team was alerting counterparts across the country.

Both Nessel and Benson urged voters to be vigilant against such misinformation, which they warned will likely become more prevalent as the November election nears. Clerks will begin mailing requested absentee ballots on Sept. 24.

Michigan - a battleground state that President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016 in part due to less turnout for Hillary Clinton in heavily Democratic Detroit - allows voters to cast an absentee ballot for any reason, either by mailing it in, dropping it off or filling one out at a clerk’s office. Benson said voting absentee, including by mail, does not expose personal information any more than simply registering to vote does.

“We were not involved in this call,” Wohl said. “It’s no secret that we’re not fans of mail-in voting. But we’re not involved in this call in particular.”

He said Burkman got hundreds of mysterious calls to his cellphone in recent days, leading them to suspect “leftist pranksters” had been behind the robocall that he said they only learned of Thursday. Recipients of the robocall apparently saw a caller ID that is the same as Burkman’s cellphone, Wohl said.

“Clearly this was meant by somebody to make it look as if we had sent out this call,” he said, before adding that he did not think its content was racist.

In an email, Burkman called the situation “a joke” because “no one” would put his or her mobile number on a robocall. He said he and Wohl planned to file a $300 million defamation lawsuit against Benson next week, alleging she knows “full well” that neither he nor Wohl are involved.

The secretary of state’s news release said while the caller claims to be associated with Burkman and Wohl, the source of the call was still unknown.

In 2019, a Michigan college student said Wohl and Burkman - proponents of President Donald Trump - recruited him to falsely claim he was raped by Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, then published the smear without his permission.


Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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