Deliberate efforts to suppress the vote in battleground states were not taken seriously enough by law enforcement officials in 2016.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is throwing the book at those who would derail democracy in 2020.
Her approach should serve as a model for law enforcement officials across the country, including Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Last week, Nessel filed charges against a pair of prominent political operatives — Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl — for allegedly attempting to discourage voters from participating in the general election by creating and funding a voter suppression scheme targeted at Detroit and other areas with substantial Black populations.
As part of the scheme, recorded robocalls featured a message that 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,” explained 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.”
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 Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Nessel, who was elected in 2018 as an outspoken champion of voting rights, 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,” she 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 is serious about the 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.
Michigan is embracing Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s call for “zero tolerance for anyone who would seek to deceive citizens about their right to vote.” Benson, who was also elected in 2018, says Nessel’s immediate response is “putting anyone else who would seek to undermine citizens’ fundamental rights on notice that we will use every tool at our disposal to dispel false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who is targeted and harmed by any attempt to suppress their vote.”
Zero tolerance for voter suppression should be the national standard. Unfortunately, U.S. Attorney General William Barr has refused to act. So it falls to state attorneys general, including Wisconsin’s Kaul, to charge and prosecute people who engage in voter suppression. If criminals break the law as part of an assault on democracy, lock ‘em up.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
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