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Benson blasts robocall warning Detroit voters to 'beware of vote by mail'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is warning Detroit voters of a "racially charged" and false robocall that appears to be discouraging mail-in voting ahead of the November election. 

The recording tells voters that their personal information will be part of a public database that will then be used by police to track down people with warrants or debt, according to a recording Benson posted Thursday to Twitter.

Jocelyn Benson, secretary of state, on Tuesday, August 4, 2020.

"The CDC is even pushing to give preference for mail in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines," the recording said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Don't be (inaudible) into giving your private information to the man. Stay safe, and beware of vote by mail."

The recording alleges the call was made on behalf of Project 1599, a project spearheaded by conservative social media personality Jacob Wohl and GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman. 

The actual source of the call remains unknown, but Wohl and Burkman have a "known reputation for spreading misinformation in an effort to gain notoriety," Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement. 

Wohl denied involvement when contacted by The Detroit News on Thursday and said he and Burkman,while "not fans of mail-in voting," were "puzzled" by the call. 

Project 1599, Wohl and Burkman's effort to vet presidential candidates, has sent out press releases before, Wohl said, but "we've never done robocalls." 

"People pull pranks all the time," he said. "We figure it's probably some internet prankster if we had to speculate, but, of course, it's too soon to know for sure."

Wohl said he and Burkman began noticing something was wrong when Burkman's cellphone number, which he believes was used to make the robocalls, began receiving multiple calls in recent days. 

When reporters began contacting him Thursday, he and Burkman began looking into the matter, Wohl said. Neither has been contacted by Benson or Nessel but would cooperate with any resulting investigation, he said. 

"We’re doing what we can," Wohl said. "It's very hard to figure these things out.”

Burkman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. 

It was not immediately clear how many people received the robocall, which the state was alerted to by WWJ radio (950 AM). 

Benson blasted the recording, arguing that it preyed "on voters' fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting."

Voting by mail, Benson said, is secure, safe and "does not expose personal information any more than simply registering to vote."

Benson and Nessel will attempt to dispel the falsehoods in the record and "seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted & harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression," the secretary of state wrote on Twitter. 

They asked that people who receive the call contact Nessel's office through mi.gov/robocalls or Benson's office at elections@michigan.gov.

Nessel's robocall team would need the phone number and carrier of the person who received the call, the caller ID for the robocall, the date and time of the call and a recording of the call. 

“This robocall is fraught with scare tactics designed to intimidate Black voters — and we are already working hard to find the bad actors behind this effort," Nessel said in a statement. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com