Sec. of State Benson and Attorney General Nessel. Photos via the Associated Press.
Sec. of State Benson and Attorney General Nessel. Photos via the Associated Press.

Robocalls are spreading false information about mail-in voting ahead of the election. Here’s what Michigan’s leaders are doing to stop it.

MICHIGAN — Michiganders are receiving a very specific, targeted set of robocalls lately. One aimed at discouraging voting by mail. One robocall falsely claims that voting by mail adds someone to a database which will be used by police to serve old warrants. 

The calls tell voters to “beware” a series of false, conspiracy-laden claims all aimed to discourage voting by mail. 

The robocalls are from an as-yet unknown source, said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel in a statement. Benson and Nessel have opened an investigation into the calls. 

“The call preys on voters’ fear and mistrust of the criminal justice system – at a moment of historic reckoning and confrontation of systemic racism and the generational trauma that results – and twists it into a fabricated threat in order to discourage people from voting,” Benson said in a release. “The Attorney General and I will use every tool at our disposal to dispel this false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who was targeted and harmed by this vicious attempt at voter suppression.”

The way the robocall messaging plays on current anxiety specifically between Michiganders of color and police, especially during the current cultural reckoning, is reminiscent of voter suppression tactics of the past that were employed in an effort to prevent Black voters from showing up on Election Day.

A long history of overt tactics designed to prevent Black Americans from voting gave way to more subtle approaches in the mid-20th century, leading to largely indirect but no less racist tactics today. Things like voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and efforts to move polling locations that were commonplace in 2018 had a noticeable impact on Black Americans, with Georgia’s midterm election being a case in point. 

Now, one of the prime tactics is disinformation and intimidation. And that, also, is nothing new. 

“This has been a dirty trick that’s been in the playbook for a long time,” Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida, said to the Washington Post. “We’ve seen misinformation and disinformation given to particularly minority communities and African American communities to try to suppress their vote.”

Michigan has had to square off against disinformation about mail-in voting already in 2020, directly from the White House. As The ‘Gander reported, Benson has taken to Twitter to correct false claims Trump has attempted to spread about the process. Disinformation from multiple sources continuing through the election comes as no surprise to Michigan officials, though. 

“This is an unfortunate but perfect example of just how low people will go to undermine this election,” Nessel said in the news release. “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.”

And the trend of voter intimidation and disinformation in 2020 is not limited to robocalls either in Michigan or nationwide. Facebook has been rife with disinformation, reports ProPublica. But the robocalls went largely unnoticed until they were reported by a Detroit-based radio station.

“The minute we heard about it we pulled in our robocall team and they are alerting our counterparts across the country,” Nessel said.

And electron disinformation robocalls are a national problem. The Washington Post reports that the disinformation calls have also been reported in Pennsylvania. 

Benson and Nessel encouraged Michiganders receiving these calls to report them to Michiganders are asked to include their phone number, carrier, the robocall’s caller-ID number, the exact time and date of robocall, and a recording of the message.