Officials launched an investigation Thursday into what they said was an erroneous, racist robocall aimed at discouraging voters in battleground states from casting their ballots by mail.
The recorded message features a woman who says she works for "Project 1599," founded by the right-wing operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, and falsely warns that personal information of those who vote by mail will be shared with police tracking down warrants and credit card companies collecting outstanding debt, according to recordings of the call reviewed by The Washington Post. Wohl and Burkman denied their involvement in the call, blaming "leftist pranksters."
"Don't be finessed into giving your private information to the man," the recording says. "Stay safe and beware of vote-by-mail."
It's not known how many people were targeted in Democratic-leaning Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Announcing the inquiry into the call's origin, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel rebutted the misinformation, warning residents that the recorded message may proceed more flagrant falsehoods directed at voters as the November election nears.
"This is an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote," Benson wrote 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 racism and the generational trauma that results - and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting."
Benson previously faced off with President Donald Trump when he threatened Michigan funding over her decision to send absentee ballot applications out of concern for the coronavirus pandemic depressing turnout. Trump has repeatedly questioned the accuracy of vote-by-mail, even though he applied for a 2020 absentee ballot in Florida.
Wohl rebutted that the call was racist and said he and Burkman are "no fan" of mail-in voting.
The phone number listed was Burkman's cellphone number.
"No one in their right mind would give out their (cell) number on a robo (call)," Burkman told The Washington Post, adding that Benson alerting residents about the misinformation was self-promotion. He said he would file a defamation lawsuit against her.
In response to a question about Burkman's legal threat, Benson's spokeswoman Tracy Wimmer said Burkman should take the real caller to court.
She also referred The Post to her news release, which said that the source of the call is not yet known but that the caller claimed to be associated with Wohl and Burkman "two political operatives with a known reputation for spreading misinformation in an effort to gain notoriety."
Famed for conspiracy theories and slapdash media briefings in Burkman's driveway, Wohl and Burkman have been booted from social media sites including Twitter for their outlandish claims, including a bogus sexual assault accusation against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
Wohl previously recorded robocalls, according to the Daily Beast, which obtained a 2019 call from him, offering cash to Delaware and Pennsylvania residents with evidence of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden saying racial epithets.
It's unclear how effective a spin campaign like this could be in the upcoming presidential election, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, but chicanery to suppress minority enfranchisement is nothing new.
"This has been a dirty trick that's been in the playbook for a long time," McDonald said. "We've seen misinformation and disinformation given to particularly minority communities and African American communities to try to suppress their vote."
Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016 due to low turnout in Detroit - whose population is 78.6% Black, according to census data.
In Pennsylvania, Trump won by a slim margin but lost in the counties Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are in. Black residents make up 42% and 23% of those cities' populations respectively.
Republican voters in those states and 11 others were called by Donald Trump Jr. this week with a contradicting message: Cast your ballots by mail.
"President Trump is counting on you to make a plan to return your absentee ballot request. Voting absentee is a safe and secure way to guarantee your voice is heard," Trump Jr. said.
Nancy Hart, a 59-year-old Pittsburg resident, laughed when she heard Wohl's name when she got the robocall Wednesday. She wondered if her number was targeted, as she writes for an African-American-focused community news blog.
"It made me wonder if there was a reason if I specifically got it," she said.
When Michelle Autry, a 51-year-old Philadelphia resident, was called Wednesday, she sent a message to the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro out of concern for fraud. Misleading robocalls are illegal in Pennsylvania and Michigan and intimidating voters is a federal crime.
Shapiro's office didn't immediately respond to The Post for comment.
"It was gross," Autry said. "It was so obviously fake."
Autry worried she was targeted because she was a Democrat. Due to health concerns, she still intends to vote by mail.