Misleading robocalls prompts lawsuit from League of Women Voters

Paul Carpenter, a New Orleans magician, performs card tricks during an interview in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Carpenter says he was hired in January by Steve Kramer, who has worked on ballot access for Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips, to use AI software to imitate President Joe Biden's voice to convince New Hampshire Democrat voters not to vote in the state's presidential primary. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

By Armita Mirkarimi

April 16, 2024

The League of Women Voters of the United States (LWV-US), the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire (LWV-NH), and individual New Hampshire voters filed a lawsuit on TKTKDAY against the perpetrators of the robocalls many Granite Staters received leading up to the New Hampshire Presidential Primary in January.

The group specifically accused Steve Kramer of Lingo Telecom, and Life Corporation of intimidating and threatening citizens to prevent them from voting in the primary. New Hampshire voters who received the robocall heard an AI-generated, deep-fake recording of Joe Biden saying, “It’s important that you save your vote for the November election…Voting this Tuesday only enables the Republicans in their quest to elect Donald Trump again.”

The plaintiffs are represented by Free Speech For People, a national non-profit, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, and local counsel Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau, & Pachios, Chartered, LLP.

This suit is separate from the New Hampshire Department of Justice’s criminal investigation of the robocalls, though the attorneys are in communication with the state. Courtney Hostetler, one of the principal attorneys of the case, emphasized the importance of the lawsuit by saying that the robocalls disrupted the plans of the League of Women Voters and other organizations like it.

“The League has to suddenly address this batch of phone calls where people are being told not to vote,” Hostetler said. “But the League and other voter engagement groups help the broader community, including people who aren’t voters yet. Maybe they’re turning 18. Maybe they’re a newly naturalized citizen. And the fact that thousands of calls are going out to them in the span of a few hours means that an organization like League of Women Voters might not be able to correct that information in time.”

The Director of the League of Women Voters New Hampshire, Liz Tenterelli, became personally aware of the robocalls by reading news coverage of the calls. Celina Stewart, Senior Director of Advocacy and Litigation for the League of Women Voters US, approached Tenterelli to become a plaintiff in the case shortly after the New Hampshire Attorney General issued a cease and desist order against the robocall perpetrators. Tenterelli is now trying to identify less frequent voters who received the robocalls and were persuaded not to vote.

“It would be wonderful to get the people—those who don’t normally vote and got the robocall and decided not to vote—to testify,” Tenterelli said. “I haven’t found them, but that kind of testimony would create a very excellent cautionary tale for why we need to take action on this.”

Former chair of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, Kathy Sullivan, though not a plaintiff in this case, was personally targeted by the robocalls. Sullivan’s personal cell phone number was given out to voters after the AI-generated voice of President Biden told them not to vote.

“We’ll never know how many people actually listened to the call and how many people maybe did not go and vote because of the call,” Sullivan said. “It’s scary to think that technology can be used in such a way to manipulate voters into believing things that aren’t true.”

Sullivan noted that she is still exploring her own legal options but ultimately hopes Kramer is held accountable through the League of Women Voters’ lawsuit and the New Hampshire Department of Justice’s investigation.

RELATED: Understanding the Robocall Magician: Five Essential Facts

Hostetler and her co-counsel are relying on Section 11B of the Voting Rights Act, precedent from National Coalition on Black Civic Participation v. Wohl, and New Hampshire state law to prove that Life Corporation and Kramer intentionally intimidated and deceived voters.

“Congress has several times in history passed legislation to broadly say that any kind of threatening is not acceptable,” Hostetler said. “One of the threats here was that you only get to vote in the primary or general election. Voting is a fundamental right and this threat makes it seem like you ‘lose’ a vote if you voted in the primary.”

Hostetler noted that although there are federal and state laws that prohibit voter intimidation, the law must “keep up” with rapidly changing AI-generated technology. Tenterelli said voter engagement groups like the League of Women Voters also need to start adapting to changing AI technology.

“We have made the shift to addressing these kinds of technologies and I think we’re going to have to,” Tenterelli said. “Right now, we’re mostly in fight mode, having to show instant reaction when incidents like the robocall happen. What we really need to do is front-load information both digitally, broadcast radio, and TV stations.”

Sullivan also commented on the necessity of having people “on the ground” to respond to “attacks on democracy.”

“We were lucky in New Hampshire that there were people involved with the write-in Biden campaign who saw the threat and reported it to the media, especially since the call happened before the primary,” Sullivan said. “In the future, there needs to be a more organized effort to prevent and counter variations of this robocall.”

For Hostetler, the ideal outcome of the case extends beyond the injunction of the defendants. She hopes this case “builds upon” existing state and federal laws that address voter rights, especially concerning AI and changing technologies.

“I expect the judge to rule in our favor,” Tenterelli said. “The hope is that other bad actors will see this suit and the state’s criminal investigation as caution signs. The Voting Rights Act was clearly violated and I think the ruling will recognize that. Whether the outcome of the case will be severe enough to have the impact is the question.”

Author

  • Armita Mirkarimi

    Armita Mirkarimi is interested in finding political nuance through human stories. A current student at Dartmouth College, Armita studies Government, English, and now calls the Granite State her home. She has previous experience in humanitarian policy at Save the Children US and as a Press Intern on Capitol Hill.

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