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MI Supreme Court to decide whether misleading robo-calls can be voter intimidation

The Michigan Court of Claims has set a speedy schedule to decide whether former President Donald Trump is allowed to appear on Michigan’s primary and general election ballots.
Rick Pluta
Michigan Public Radio Network
The Michigan Court of Claims has set a speedy schedule to decide whether former President Donald Trump is allowed to appear on Michigan’s primary and general election ballots.

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday on whether robo-calls sent to Detroiters in the run-up to the 2020 elections may have crossed the line into illegal voter intimidation.

The decision, which would likely not come for months, will determine whether Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman of the 1599 Project will face charges of circulating a robo-call that used falsehoods in an effort to deter Detroit voters from using mail-in ballots and, thus, suppress voter participation.

“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 track down outstanding debt? The CDC is even pushing to use information from mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines.”

Wohl and Burkman have already been sanctioned in other states on similar charges. But their attorney argues that Michigan’s voter suppression law is too broad to enforce. Scott Graybel said the calls do not fit any legal definitions in the election tampering law.

“You have to be on sort of constructive notice that, hey look, it’s clear if I do this, I should be aware that this is criminal in nature and I don’t think the statute makes it clear,” he told Michigan Public Radio.

The statute says: “A person shall not attempt, by means of bribery, menace, or other corrupt means or device, either directly or indirectly, to influence an elector in giving his or her vote, or to deter the elector from, or interrupt the elector in giving his or her vote at any election held in this state.”

Graybel said the robo-calls were not “some kind of threat or bribery or something like that with money – something pretty understandable.”

Phil Mayor is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. He said the calls do count as a threat under the law when they falsely warned the act of mailing in a ballot could bring law enforcement or debt collectors to a voter’s door.

“What’s unique here is that the speech is about the time, place, manner or legal consequences of voting, and that is the type of speech that cannot necessarily be quickly and sufficiently rebutted in the sort of court of public opinion,” Mayor told Michigan Public Radio.

Mayor also said the calls should not be treated as First Amendment-protected political speech.

“Here, the government has a compelling governmental interest that free and fair elections are held and people know how to vote,” he said.

The defendants lost their efforts in lower courts to have the charges dismissed. The court will likely take weeks or months to issue a ruling after Thursday’s arguments.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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