Threatening emails escalate voter intimidation concerns

(The Hill) - Emails sent to voters in Florida and Alaska this week from domains purporting to be a far-right group threatening them to vote for President Trump or face consequences are raising concerns around voter suppression efforts and disinformation ahead of Election Day.

Threatening emails escalate voter intimidation concerns

The emails, which are under investigation by federal and state officials, were primarily sent to people in Florida, and used some personal details about the individuals targeted to appear more threatening. 

One email viewed by The Hill came from a group with the domain “info@officialproudboys.com” and was sent to a registered voter on Tuesday, a day after early voting began in Florida, under the subject line “Vote for Trump or else!.”

“You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure,” the email stated, including personal information of the recipient. “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. 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. I would take this seriously if I were you.”

Voter intimidation is an issue that has been seen in many forms in previous U.S. elections, but the election process has been in the spotlight since the 2016 presidential election, when Russian agents launched a disinformation campaign aimed at swaying voters towards now-President Trump. 

People from both parties have already been threatened by emails and postal letters connected to the election.

It is not clear what entity is behind the emails sent to residents of Alaska and Florida, a crucial swing state in the presidential race. According to Vice, at least one email included a link to a video showing a hacker obtaining data and printing a ballot. 

The emails came from addresses claiming to originate with the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violent confrontation, that President Trump declined to condemn during the first presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden, though he did later condemn the group during an appearance on Fox News. 

Individuals affiliated with the Proud Boys have denied sending the threatening emails, with Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio telling CBS News on Wednesday that he had contacted the FBI and officials in Alachua County, Florida about the emails. 

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights received roughly 80 complaints as of Wednesday about potential voter intimidation stemming from the malicious emails, with the lion’s share coming from Florida, some from Alaska and one from Arizona, the group’s president and executive director Kristen Clarke told The Hill on Wednesday. Arizona, like Florida, is a key swing state in the election.

“Sadly, we see voter intimidation rear its ugly head in our elections. We are on alert this season given the racially charged atmosphere across the country and the rise in white supremacist activity,” Clarke said. 

“Our end goal is ensuring that all voters are able to freely cast their ballot, and right now it’s not clear that this was a broad, systematic attempt [to] impact voters on a mass scale, but we are very concerned,” she added. “We are not turning a blind eye to this. We want to pull back the veil to understand who may be behind this scheme and bring the effort to a close.”

Concerns around election disinformation and misinformation have also shot up in recent months, with federal authorities warning that countries including Russia, China, and Iran are actively interfering in the U.S. elections process, often through spreading malign influence. 

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions,” the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) wrote in a joint PSA last month. 

Security group KnowBe4 analyzed some of the emails sent to Florida residents, finding that many were sent through servers in Estonia and Saudi Arabia, but that as the domains were anonymously registered, the culprits behind the emails could be anywhere in the world. 

The domain used to send the emails was a legitimate Proud Boys website, but according to The Washington Post, the domain was dropped by the hosting service that uses Google Cloud after a non-profit group raised concerns with Google Cloud about the Proud Boys organization. 

Eric Howes, a threat researcher at KnowBe4, told The Hill Wednesday that while the emails were concerning, and the culprit unknown, it was unlikely there was a “larger threat structure” behind them due to the lack of links and attachments. 

“Compared to other phishing emails that we process on a daily basis, there is really no threat here, there is a lot of bark, but very little bite,” Howes said. “There are no malicious links to click on, no attachments, they are not putting up a link to a bitcoin site...none of the classic things we are seeing actors doing these days.”

The messages are under investigation by federal and state authorities. 

A spokesperson for Alaska’s Division of Elections told The Hill that “the division is aware of these unfortunate and untruthful emails” and has sent the information to “the appropriate federal agency for their review.” 

“Please note the security of the information at the Division of Elections remains intact, and this appears to be a scam message,” the spokesperson for Alaska’s Division of Elections added. 

The FBI did not confirm an investigation, but a spokesperson told The Hill the agency is doing everything it can to protect the election. 

A spokesperson for CISA confirmed to The Hill that the agency is investigating the emails.

“CISA is aware of reports of threatening emails sent to voters in several states claiming their votes are not secret,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While we are looking into the emails, we can tell you this: your vote IS secret. These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections. Don’t fall for sensational and unverified claims.”

A spokesperson for the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment, while Trump campaign spokesperson Courtney Parella said the emails are “obviously not affiliated with our campaign.” 

“Quite the opposite, the Trump campaign is encouraging every eligible voter to get out and vote – by secure absentee ballot, early in-person, and at the polls on November 3rd – for President Donald J. Trump,” she added. 

The Alachua County Sheriff’s office said on Facebook Tuesday it is aware the email is circulating and is initiating an investigation into the emails’ source with assistance from federal partners. 

 

Alachua County, where the city of Gainesville and the University of Florida are located, has more than 191,000 active registered voters including 94,406 Democrats, 51,393 Republicans and 45,387 other voters, according to county information. 

Clarke said she hopes the attention drawn on the emails sent this week deters similar potential voter intimidation efforts in the remaining days ahead of Election Day.