GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Despite foreign interference in a contentious election, U.S. intelligence officials say the November election will be fair and accurate.
The FBI and several other federal agencies are investigating voter intimidation campaigns, including one targeting registered Democrats in North Florida. The most notable number of cases was in Alachua County, where most voters are registered Democrats.
News4Jax began reporting on Tuesday about emails claiming to be from the far-right group the “Proud Boys” telling Democrats to “Vote Trump or Else.” The email goes on to say voters must change their party affiliation and vote for the incumbent otherwise “we will come after you.” The messages, appearing to be from firstname.lastname@example.org, listed voters' personal information, like full names and addresses. The Proud Boys leader denied his group having any intervention in the scheme.
On Wednesday night, the nation’s top intelligence leaders said they came from Iran. They also accused Russia of interfering with the November election.
“We have already seen Iran sending spoof emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” said John Ratcliffe, the director of National Intelligence, who noted Russia posed a continued threat.
This announcement comes as voters stew over the emails they received earlier in the week.
“They said if I did not vote Trump, they would come after me, and that they have all my information,” a University of Florida student told News4Jax on the condition of anonymity.
The UF student, who’s a registered Democrat, noted the messages haven’t affected her vote, but they’re still concerning.
“Even if there’s not an immediate threat to my safety, it’s kind of like a threat to democracy in general,” she said.
“All Americans need to be aware that this is happening, not just from Russia and Iran, but other actors,” said Nancy Soderberg, the former Deputy National Security Advisor for President Clinton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a current professor at the University of North Florida.
The big question many people have is why would foreign countries want to interfere?
“We don’t really know,” she said. “It’s not like they’re admitting that they’re doing it or we can read and to the minds of the Ayatollahs or President (Vladimir) Putin, China is doing it as well, but I think the Internet is a powerful tool to spread this information.”
She believes Russia seems to favor President Donald Trump and Iran is more likely to support Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. She adds these latest attacks may be an effort to smear Trump’s name. However, she believes the American voting system is safe, urging voters to avoid the distractions.
“Just tune the noise out if you can,” she said, adding that the interference won’t stop on Nov. 3..
The latest attack comes as supervisors of elections plan for the end to a highly-divided election. Pinellas County’s sheriff said he is stationing deputies at early voting spots to prevent voter intimidation.
The State of Florida is reassuring voters their information and their ballots are secure.
“It’s concerning, but not unexpected that we’re seeing foreign actors, foreign countries interfering in our elections,” said Ben Wilcox with Integrity Florida.
It’s not entirely clear how voter information was obtained, but Wilcox pointed out someone doesn’t need to be a hacker to get voter information in Florida.
“Their email address and other information might be available to the public,” said Wilcox.
The email campaign comes as authorities investigate alleged domestic voter intimidation efforts.
Police were called after an armed man arrived Wednesday at an early vote site in St. Petersburg. The Trump campaign said he had no affiliation with them.
And American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp spoke on Monday about threatening letters allegedly left on Trump voters' doors in Kansas City.
“This voter intimidation I think is a really serious problem. That’s not just a state question, you know that’s really a federal question,” said Schlapp. “When are people over the line and when is this violence just getting to be out of hand?”
For Wilcox, the stories are disheartening to hear.
“It’s too bad that those kind of tactics are at play here. Floridians need to just tune out the noise, have confidence in the electoral process, have confidence in the vote,” said Wilcox.
In a tweet, the Secretary of State told Floridians the state’s databases are secure, and while some voter information is public, no one can know who you voted for.