The U.S. government Wednesday night concluded that Iran and Russia have taken “specific actions to influence public opinion” in the 2020 presidential election, suggesting Iran may be behind the threatening emails to Florida voters this week claiming to be affiliated with the Proud Boys.
“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia. This data can be used by foreign actors to attempt to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos and undermine your confidence in American democracy,” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said in a nationally televised press conference.
Iran has been sending “spoofed” emails to registered voters and has distributed videos that imply individuals can cast fraudulent ballots, including while abroad, Ratcliffe said. The emails were designed to incite social unrest and hurt President Donald Trump, he said.
The emails, which appeared to have targeted Democratic voters, told recipients to vote for Trump on Election Day “or we will come after you.”
Florida voters receive hundreds of these emails
The news conference came a day after hundreds of Florida voters in several counties received voter-intimidation emails from a group claiming to be the Proud Boys, a far-right group that denied involvement. Experts in disinformation said typos and false claims about public voting information in the messages hinted at a deceptive voter-intimidation campaign days ahead of Election Day.
Florida was among at least four states targeted, including Arizona, Pennsylvania and Alaska. Alachua, Collier, Brevard, Escambia and Citrus counties are among the Florida counties that reported emails to the FBI on Tuesday.
The FBI was investigating the emails on Wednesday. Ratcliffe said the intelligence community caught the activity “immediately.”
Digital forensic specialists confirmed to McClatchy and the Herald that the emails came from a server in Estonia. But the location of the server did not show where the sender was.
The emails included voters’ full names and the sender claims to be in possession of their personal information. They were sent from an email address using the name of the Proud Boys, a self-described militia group that denies involvement.
The emails all have similar wording. The email address was email@example.com.
“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” the email threatened. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for.
Florida Department of State spokesman Mark Ard issued a statement Wednesday night acknowledging that emails were sent to voters in multiple counties only after the U.S. government announced Iran may have been behind the “spoofed” emails.
Ard said emails were provided to law enforcement and that an investigation was ongoing as of Wednesday night.
Proud Boys says it’s working with FBI
Henry “Enrique” Tarrio Jr., the Miami-based chairman of the Proud Boys and state director of Latinos for Trump, has said he is cooperating with the FBI’s Jacksonville office and denies the group was involved in sending the emails. He and his group have been supportive of President Trump.
The email had several “red flags” and misleading information, said Damon Scott, a Florida fellow with First Draft News, a disinformation research organization.
In Florida, Oct. 6 was the deadline to register or change party affiliation. And though voter registration data — including names, addresses, dates of birth, party affiliation and email addresses — is public record, votes are private.
On Twitter Wednesday, the director of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Christopher C. Krebs, noted that, “Ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states. These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections.”
Several Florida voters who received the emails told the Miami Herald they did not feel threatened at the time, but election officials and experts in disinformation say the scare tactic could lead to voter suppression.
“Even though a lot of voters are weary of this sort of thing, I can see how some voters could be intimidated by this, particularly people who may find the Proud Boys intimidating,” Scott said.
In Florida, where the 2016 presidential election was decided by 112,911 votes, voter turnout matters. Election officials and national groups are taking the emails seriously with less than two weeks until Election Day.
Officials in Alachua, Citrus, Brevard and Collier counties have reported the emails to the FBI. The federal Joint Terrorism Task Force is looking into the matter in Florida and other states, according to Brevard County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Todd Goodyear.
“We are just trying to calm the worries of people,” Goodyear said.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said her organization had received reports of over 80 emails as of Wednesday morning, with the vast majority reported in Florida.
UF removes more than 180 emails
At the University of Florida, which is located in Alachua County, the university removed 183 emails from the UF email inboxes.
Florida voters who were targeted by the emails said on Tuesday they had mixed feelings about the intimidation tactics, according to interviews with half a dozen email recipients. Some said they were amused or confused by the emails, but others said they were fearful of someone having their address and other personal information.
“The email actually freaked me out a bit,” said Rebecca Connors, a Brevard County registered voter, who said she received the email with her father’s address listed, making her nervous for her family’s safety.
Connors, a registered Democrat who already voted by mail for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, reported the email to the Brevard Supervisor of Elections.
Concerns over integrity of voting process
Scott, whose work at First Draft includes tracking down disinformation in Florida, said people who become nervous after receiving such an email might simply stay home rather than vote.
“People may say, well, maybe I’ll just sit this one or maybe they have seen recent polling and they say, well, looks like my candidate is up so I am going to sit it out and not risk it,” Scott said.
Kimberly Lofgren, a Viera resident in central Florida and lifelong Democrat who received the email, said she wasn’t afraid for her personal safety but instead fearful for the integrity of the process. She will be voting for Biden, she said.
“I don’t scare easily,” she said. “Other people who receive this email might feel threatened. They might change their vote or not vote at all. That is the point of voter intimidation. Whoever is behind this, they have your address. They know where you live. And that is scary.”
Mike Harrison, a Democrat living in a largely Republican retirement community in Punta Gorda on the state’s southwest coast, said he received the Proud Boys email at around 10 a.m. Tuesday. Harrison, 71, wondered if he was targeted because of his age. But the retired naval officer said he is not so easily intimidated.
“I think this was done by amateurs,” said Harrison, pointing out that the word “voting” was misspelled in the email subject line. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was some sort of foreign interference.”
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said in a statement that he was aware of the emails that were distributed to registered Democrats.
“Please do not allow this or any other action by anyone to intimidate or dissuade you from your right as an American to cast your ballot for the candidates of your choosing during early voting or on Election Day,” Ivey said.
The Proud Boys connection
Emails reviewed by the Herald displayed an email address using the name of the Proud Boys, a group that most recently gained notoriety during the first televised presidential debate, when President Trump failed to disavow them, saying only “stand back and stand by.”
Tarrio, the Miami-based chairman of the Proud Boys, on Wednesday insisted the organization had nothing to do with the mass emails, and said he is cooperating with the FBI’s Jacksonville office.
“I don’t think there is much I can do but help them with any leads,” Tarrio said.
One lead he shared with the FBI points to an unknown individual or entity who two months ago created a “fake” Proud Boys website that no longer exists, Tarrio said. He said that whoever created the website was “out for data.”
“They were looking for people to sign up to capture emails and text messages,” Tarrio said. “I don’t even know who made the website. … I don’t even have a clue.”
McClatchy DC reporter Kevin G. Hall and Miami Herald reporter Jay Weaver contributed to this report.