A Detroit judge declined to dismiss felony charges against two right-wing political provocateurs on Tuesday, instead appearing to agree with prosecutors that comments included in a robocall could be seen as menacing and deter someone from voting.
Third Circuit Court Judge Margaret Van Houten said the messages orchestrated by Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman that were distributed throughout Detroit included language people weighing voting by mail could find threatening.
“It’s not whether they succeeded in deterring someone from voting, it’s whether they attempted to deter someone from voting. That is the language in the statute,” Van Houten said.
“Certainly, the robocall itself, the language in the call could influence someone and deter them from voting by mail.”
In October, Attorney General Dana Nessel charged both men with multiple felonies, accusing them of intentionally trying to dissuade Black voters from casting a ballot in the general election. Both men have since been charged in other states and face civil lawsuits related to the robocalls as well.
Wohl and Burkman have pleaded not guilty to the Michigan charges.
Richard Cunningham, an attorney with the Office of the Michigan Attorney General, argued the case must proceed because the men clearly tried to threaten Black voters using a “dog whistle argument.”
“What was the real intent of these defendants? It was to deter people from voting,” Cunningham said.
Scott Grabel, who represents Burkman but is working with Wohl’s attorney, did not argue that the men sent out the robocalls. Instead, he said the calls were protected speech and the criminal charges were akin to “cancel culture.”
“This sets beyond a dangerous precedent, that if you’re going to punish a message like this in a robocall, it’s certainly disconcerting. If not, maybe we should all move to Russia and Syria,” Grabel said in arguing the charges should be dismissed.
“Unfortunately, there are many things, especially these days and the era we live in; a lot of things you read on Facebook, politically or nonpolitically. It’s cancel culture now: if you don’t like the message, turn it off.”
Wohl and Burkman are known for creating hoaxes and spreading misinformation in an effort to champion conservative causes and former President Donald Trump.
In August, the pair distributed a robocall throughout Detroit and many other states that included inaccurate and misleading allegations about the election and specifically mail-in voting. The recorded call falsely stated people requesting an absentee ballot would be providing information to the government that would be used to collect debts, serve warrants and forcibly administer vaccines.
At the time, many state and national leaders were encouraging voters to request absentee ballots. It was weeks ahead of the first presidential election where Michigan voters could obtain an absentee ballot for any reason, and experts suggested voting by mail could help cut down on the possibility of spreading COVID-19 at crowded polling places.
But Trump, many of his supporters and others repeatedly impugned mail-in voting. Despite providing no evidence of problems — and Trump himself voting by mail in August — they blasted the process as being for purely political means.
After the hearing, Nessel said in a statement her office was pleased with the ruling and looked forward to proceeding with the case. Grabel told the Free Press he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling and pledged to appeal.
The next hearing in the case is April 13. Van Houten suggested it would be some time before a trial would be scheduled.
Contact Dave Boucher: [email protected] or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.