U.S. voters receive court-ordered robocalls after earlier, intimidating messages

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Nearly 30,000 recipients of what a U.S. judge described as “electoral terror” robocalls designed to scare people from voting in four states including Ohio and Pennsylvania received new court-ordered calls Friday saying the earlier call had false information that intimidated voters.

Lawyers for two men who sent out the original messages notified U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan that the corrective calls were sent Friday afternoon to comply with an order he issued on Wednesday.

The judge ordered the new calls after a nonpartisan civil rights organization, The National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, and several individuals who received the calls in August sued Jacob Wohl and lobbyist Jack Burkman.

The lawsuit said the robocalls were sent to residents of predominantly Black neighbourhoods in New York, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania by the men, who face criminal charges in Ohio and Illinois. Through lawyers, the men maintain they engaged in protected speech and were factually correct.

The judge said Wohl had bragged publicly of their plans to influence politics through disinformation campaigns, saying he would weaponize his large social media following to cause disarray like the Russians did in the 2016 election.

The robocalls targeted 85,000 residents to say voting by mail would surrender private information to police and creditors and enable a federal agency to track them for “mandatory vaccines.” The corrective calls were sent to 29,117 numbers that had reached a person or message service.

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Marrero said the robocall was an example of how technology in some ways was more damaging than the kind of tactics that led to passage in 1871 of the Ku Klux Klan Act.

“In the current version of events, the means Defendants use to intimidate voters, though born of fear and similarly powered by hate, are not guns, torches, burning crosses, and other dire methods perpetrated under the cover of white hoods,” the judge wrote. “Rather, Defendants carry out electoral terror using telephones, computers, and modern technology adapted to serve the same deleterious ends.”

He rejected First Amendment claims, calling what they did “a fundamental threat to democracy.”

“The First Amendment cannot confer on anyone a license to inflict purposeful harm on democratic society or offer refuge for wrongdoers seeking to undermine bedrock constitutional principles. Nor can it serve as a weapon they wield to bring about our democracy’s self-destruction,” Marrero said.

The judge said he concluded that the men engaged in voter intimidation because they intended the robocall to hurt Democrats by suppressing turnout among Black voters.

A lawyer defending the men against criminal charges in Ohio and Illinois on Friday requested that their names be left off “curative” robocalls carrying a script that Marrero approved. The judge agreed.

The original robocall delivered the following message: “Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, the civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl. 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.”

The corrective robocall said: “At the direction of a United States district court, this call is intended to inform you that a federal court has found that the message you previously received regarding mail-in voting from Project 1599 contained false information that has had the effect of intimidating voters, and thus interfering with the upcoming presidential election, in violation of federal voting-rights laws.”

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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