Voter suppression robocall case heads to trial

    Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl | DM photo via Flickr Public Domain

    Two far-right conspiracy theorists and political operatives accused of intimidating minority voters in Detroit and other cities with significant minority populations through a robocall meant to suppress turnout in the November 2020 general election will stand trial in Wayne County Circuit Court after a failed dismissal attempt.

    However, a trial date has not been set. It comes after defendants Jack Burkman, 54, and Jacob Wohl, 22, appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals on March 16 to get the charges dismissed. Their application was denied Thursday. The Arlington, Va., residents were bound over to Wayne County Circuit Court on charges of:

    • intimidating voters, a felony punishable by up to five years
    • conspiracy to commit an election law violation, a felony punishable by up to five years 
    • using a computer to commit the crime of election law – intimidating voters, a felony punishable by up to seven years 
    • using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, a felony punishable by up to seven years 

    Burkman and Wohl are white. Detroit is 79% Black. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed criminal charges last Oct. 1, alleging the men attempted to deter voters from participating in the Nov. 3 general election by disseminating a robocall, making a number of falsehoods and targeting specific areas. The robocalls were made in late August 2020 and went out to nearly 12,000 residents in the Detroit area. After the case was bound over, the defendants filed a motion to have it dismissed, which was heard and denied by Judge Margaret Van Houten on Feb. 23. 

    In their motion and oral arguments, Burkman and Wohl claimed their conduct did not violate Michigan’s voter intimidation law and that the robocalls were protected by the First Amendment. Van Houten rejected the argument. She ruled that the district court did not abuse its authority in binding over the case to Circuit Court because the robocall had the potential to deter people from voting by mail. Van Houten also rejected the free speech argument made by defendants.

    “I applaud the Court of Appeals decision and my office stands ready to proceed with this case,” Nessel said. “We remain committed to defending democracy against misinformation spread in an attempt to undermine our free and fair elections.”

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.