Deliberate efforts to suppress the vote in battleground states were not taken seriously enough in 2016. Only after the damage was done did law enforcement officials begin to pay proper attention to the outright lies and crude calculations that were employed in attempts to derail democracy in Detroit and other urban centers.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is not about to let it happen again in 2020.
Nessel’s throwing the book at those who attempt to undermine voting rights in the run-up to this year’s presidential election. Her aggressive approach should serve as a model for attorneys general and local prosecutors nationwide.
Last week, Nessel charged a pair of prominent political operatives—Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl—for allegedly attempting to discourage voters from participating in the November election by creating and funding a voter-suppression scheme targeted at Detroit and other areas with substantial African American populations.
As part of the scheme, recorded robocalls amplified President Trump’s lies about voting by mail, with a warning to voters and potential voters about being “finessed into giving your private information to the man” and urging them to “beware of vote by mail.”
“The caller, who claims to be associated with an organization founded by Burkman and Wohl, falsely tells people that mail-in voting, in particular, will allow personal information to become part of a special database used by police to track down old warrants and by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts,” said Nessel’s office. “The caller also deceptively claims the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will use the information to track people for mandatory vaccines. However, none of that is true.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson labeled the robocall scheme “an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote,” and said when it was revealed in August, “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. The Attorney General and I will use every tool at our disposal to dispel this false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted and harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression.”
That’s an appropriate response, considering the record from 2016. Along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Michigan was one of the trio of states where extremely narrow wins by Donald Trump allowed the Republican to claim an Electoral College majority despite losing the national popular vote by 2.9 million ballots. Since 2016, there have been multiple reports linking voter-suppression efforts by foreign and domestic operatives to turnout declines in Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and other urban centers. As New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said during last year’s Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, “We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African American voters. We need to say that.”
Booker argued, “We need to have a campaign that is ready for what’s coming: an assault especially on the highest-performing voter group in our coalition, which is black women.”
Democrats have stepped up their game in Detroit and other cities.
But this is about more than partisan political warfare. There has to be a official response that recognizes voter suppression as a crime.
Nessel, who was elected in 2018 as an outspoken champion of voting rights, gets this. She rejects the casual approach that too many law enforcement officials have taken in the past to voter suppression.
“Any effort to interfere with, intimidate or intentionally mislead Michigan voters will be met with swift and severe consequences,” the attorney general said. “This effort specifically targeted minority voters in an attempt to deter them from voting in the November election. We’re all well aware of the frustrations caused by the millions of nuisance robocalls flooding our cell phones and landlines each day, but this particular message poses grave consequences for our democracy and the principles upon which it was built. Michigan voters are entitled to a full, free and fair election in November and my office will not hesitate to pursue those who jeopardize that.”
Nessel’s serious about those swift and severe consequences. Burkman and Wohl have each been charged with:
- One count of violating election law—intimidating voters, a five-year felony;
- One count of conspiracy to commit an election law violation, a five-year felony;
- One count of using a computer to commit the crime of election law—intimidating voters, a seven-year felony; and
- Using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, a seven-year felony.
Nessel has embraced Secretary of State Benson’s call for “zero tolerance for anyone who would seek to deceive citizens about their right to vote.”
Zero tolerance for voter suppression should be the national standard.
Unfortunately, Trump Attorney General William Barr is on the wrong side of this issue. The Guardian identifies Barr as “Trump’s most powerful ally in undermining the election,” explaining, “The US attorney general has not only embraced the president’s false claims, he’s also spread misinformation of his own.”
So it falls to state attorneys general, and to local prosecutors, to charge and prosecute people who engage in voter suppression. They should not hesitate. If criminals break the law as part of an assault on democracy, lock ’em up.