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Judge says GOP operatives violated Ku Klux Klan Act with robocall scheme

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman targeted Black voters with their robocalls in the lead-up to the 2020 election, a federal judge ruled.


A federal judge in New York ruled Wednesday that two conservative operatives violated the Voting Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act with a 2020 robocall campaign meant to intimidate Black voters.

(Read about the history of the KKK Act and how it's being used to punish extremists in a previous post I wrote here.)

Last fall, Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman pleaded guilty in Ohio to telecommunications fraud for running the robocall scheme, which involved ominous phone calls to residents of largely Black neighborhoods in the lead-up to 2020 presidential election. The calls floated potential legal or financial ramifications for residents who voted in the election.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York said Wohl and Burkman’s intent to target Black people was obvious. 

“The evidence establishes that the neighborhoods that Defendants targeted were not accidental or random,” the ruling said, noting that the two men “deliberately chose ‘black neighborhoods’ when developing their strategy and designing their voter suppression project via the robocall.”

The overwhelming evidence allowed the judge to issue a ruling himself rather than impanel a jury to consider the case, Marrero wrote.

“The Court is hard-pressed to find an alternative theory as to why they [Wohl and Burkman] did so besides to deny the right to vote specifically to Black voters, and a reasonable jury likewise would not be able to find otherwise," according to the ruling.

The robocall script “contained racially coded language,” Marrero wrote, adding that “each of the threatening messages contained in the Robocall relied on harmful stereotypes of Black people, related to interactions with the criminal justice system, the amassing of debt, and resistance toward medicine.” 

You can hear a partial recording of one of the robocalls here: 

The ruling is a victory for the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, as well as New York Attorney General Letitia James, who joined the civil rights group's lawsuit in 2021. 

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the lawsuit in October 2020 on behalf of the NCBCP and individual voters affected by the scheme.

“We applaud the court’s recognition that these robocalls were an illegal and discriminatory voter suppression tactic that targeted Black voters," Damon Hewitt, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

"But we also know that the threats of intimidation to Black voters — in-person, on the internet, and through the airwaves — still remain," he warned. "There is still critical work to be done in order to protect and expand the right to vote for Black people and all Americans.”