Last Updated: 9:43 p.m.
The emails that several Flagler County Democrats, hundreds of Floridians and others across the country received today, threatening recipients to vote for Donald Trump or else, were the work of Iran, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, who spoke with reporters Wednesday evening.
Emails began popping up in local residents’ in-boxes Tuesday evening, and were reported to the sheriff’s office and the Flagler County Supervisor of Elections’ office. Almost 200 students and faculty at the University of Florida got the same email, personalized in the recipient’s case in every case.
Federal officials told reporters that Iran and Russia had obtained voter-registration records, which are public records across the country and may easily be acquired. In Florida–and in Flagler–voters are given the choice to include an email address as part of their registration record. Many do. But voters’ choices when they cast ballots are not knowable, as the email claims. Russia was not tied to the threatening emails, which posed as coming from a pro-Trump group known as the Proud Boys.
The New York Times this evening reported Ratcliffe saying that “the effort was aimed at hurting President Trump, and intelligence officials have said Iran opposes the president’s re-election. But if the emails had the effect of intimidating Democrats, they could also have hurt Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee. ‘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,'” Ratcliffe told the paper.
Today’s earlier story is below.
‘You Will Vote for Trump or We Will Come After You’: Flagler Democrats Targeted With Threatening Emails
Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart this morning said Flagler County voters notified her office about receiving threatening voter-intimidation emails , waring them to vote for Donald Trump, or else. The sheriff’s office received two such complaints from local residents, the supervisor received one. A local resident forwarded a fourth such email to FlaglerLive. All four originate from “Proud Boys” and the email, [email protected].
“I received it today and forwarded a copy to the FBI and to the Supervisor of Elections,” a resident told FlaglerLive.
Proud Boys is the far-right group of self-described “western chauvinists” that the Southern Poverty Law Center ranks among hate groups, and that Trump ordered to “stand back and stand by,” when asked to condemn white supremacy at his first debate with Joe Biden. The president refused to condemn the group. “Members of the group online took the answer as a call to prepare for action,” the BBC reported.
The emails sent to Flagler voters are identical to those sent to other Democrats in Florida and Alaska, from the same email address.
“Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys and the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, denied involvement,” the Washington Post reports today, “saying the group operates two sites, and was increasingly migrating away from the domain used in the email campaign.” If so, the Proud Boys’ former domain name itself appears to have been misused after the organization says it stopped using it–but left it unsecured.
Two emails sent to a 65-year-old resident in the Palm Harbor area of Palm Coast at 5:20 and 6:54 p.m., began with the resident’s name in capital letters, and the following: “We are in possession of all your information You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. 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.” The email then lists the resident’s home address in capital letters, and adds: “good luck ;) ”
The sender, of course, is misinformed: while voter-registration databases are public, who a voter votes for remains secret: the threat cannot be taken seriously.
The email included a link that goes to a 150-second video that starts with a clip of Trump saying, “I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing,” before showing what purports to be a logo of the “Proud Boys” and a series of live screenshots apparently intended to indicate the alleged ease of hacking into voter databases and voter fraud. While voter databases are public, and routinely used by political parties in get-out-the-vote strategies, voter fraud is extremely rare. Trump’s own voter-fraud commission disbanded in 2018 after finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Another email went to a Flagler Beach resident, and a third went to a 78-year-old F Section resident, again listing her name in capital letters and repeating the same threats. But that voter told a deputy it was too late: she had already voted. The deputy investigating the case notified the voter that “similar emails sent by Proud Boys were reported to CBS News, The Orlando Sentinel, multiple police and sheriffs departments,” according to a sheriff’s incident report, and instructed the voter to report the email to the Federal Trade Commission. University of Florida spokesman Steve Orlando told CNN that 183 people, including students, staff and alumni, received the emails.
“I want to assure our county voters that we are taking every step necessary to ensure your vote counts in this election,” Lenhart said in a statement issued this morning. “First of all, certain voter information is a public record. From my research, it seems the publicly available information such as name, address, party affiliation and sample ballot email address have been used to personalize this email. The email was only sent to registered Democrats in Florida, although I have seen news reports that similar emails have been sent in other states as well. We maintain your secret ballot as required by the US Constitution. No one knows how you vote. Ironically, the email was sent to voters who have already voted early or by mail.
Lenhart added: “Please do not let this type of behavior discourage you from voting for your candidate of choice. This such an important election and unfortunately these scammers are using public information to attack voter confidence in the voting process. I also hope this incident will be enough to convince the Florida Legislature that voter information should be exempt from public records.”
Mike Cocchiola, who heads the local Democratic Party, said he made the rounds of all three early voting stations this morning and spoke with volunteers. None reported receiving the email.
“We’re passing the warning around to our voter-protection team,” Cocchiola said. “It’s obviously unconscionable, but I do not at this point believe that it’s an organized effort from the Republican Party or anything like that. I think it’s outside agitators doing this. I don’t believe at this point it’s widespread.” But Cocchiola said the intent was clearly to intimidate and keep people from voting Democratic.
There’s been a surge of Democratic votes in a record-breaking bout of mail-in and early voting across Florida, with Democrats so far holding an edge in ballots cast even in Flagler, where Republicans have a 13-point advantage in registrations. As of today, Democrats held a 43-39 percent advantage over Republican ballots cast, but Republicans have been narrowing the gap steadily since early voting began Monday. Statewide, Democrats hold less than a point advantage over Republicans in registration, but as of today, Democrats had cast 1.7 million ballots to Republicans’ 1.2 million. But again, Republicans are voting in larger numbers in in-person, early voting, which runs through Oct. 31 in Flagler, and are expected to outpace Democrats on Election Day on Nov. 3.
Turnout so far has been high: mail-in ballots broke the record last week in Flagler, though in-person, early voting remains below the level of 2016. But early voting across the state is breaking records. “In my years of being a political person here in Flagler I’ve never seen the excitement out,” Cocchiola said, “and that’s for both sides, Democrats and Republicans.” He said voting days have been marred only by “annoying little things” from both sides, such as stepping over the 150-foot no-soliciting barriers at the voting locations. Otherwise, it’s been civil. “I just see from all sides, from all around, a good, peaceful democratic—and I mean that from the broad sense of democratic–event,” Cocchiola said.