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Emailed threats in Florida dry up as congressional delegation asks for FBI briefing

By Ana Ceballos and Samantha J. Gross, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Threatening emails claiming to be from a pro-Trump group called the Proud Boys that were sent to voters in Florida and other states earlier this week appeared to have come to a halt after the FBI accused Iran and Russia of being behind attacks to influence the U.S. election.

But two Florida members of Congress are now requesting an FBI briefing for the Florida delegation and at least seven local election officials say they have not been given any information from authorities on the scope of the issue other than what has been publicly reported.

"This request is in direct response to reporting from your offices yesterday, October 21, 2020, that Iran and Russia have targeted voter registration data, including in the state of Florida," Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Michael Waltz wrote in a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray. "According to multiple county Supervisor of Elections in Florida, 'spoofing,' or threatening emails have been sent to registered voters in Flagler County, Brevard County and Alachua County."

During a hastily called news conference Wednesday evening, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Iran used the information to send emails to voters and that Iranian intelligence distributed a video that "implies individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas."

In Florida, hundreds of the emails were received by voters in at least six counties on Tuesday morning. The sender purported to be affiliated with the Proud Boys, a far-right group, and claimed to have the voters' personal information, ordering them to vote for President Donald Trump or "we will come after you." By Wednesday night, the U.S. government had concluded Iran was behind the effort — a swift turnaround that raised suspicion among some Democrats.

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The Miami Herald interviewed six Florida voters living in Sweden, Mexico, England, Germany and India, all of whom said they did not receive any emails or videos described by Ratcliffe.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a press conference Thursday, said the emails were simply an attempt to "get things in the zeitgeist with voters," not an attack on anyone's access to vote.

"It's something we take very seriously," DeSantis said. "We are concerned about China, Russia, Iran. Iran, what they were doing with these emails. ... It's still a terrorist regime and we don't want them to be involved in anything we are doing."

At the Collier County Supervisor of Elections office, staff members became aware of a video that may be the one Ratcliffe mentioned.

The video, described as "spooky" by an elections spokeswoman who saw it, shows someone pretending to hack the Federal Voter Assistance Program, which helps overseas military members, their families and voters cast their ballots.

Trish Robertson, a spokeswoman for the office who saw the video, said the video plays over death metal music and pretends to hack the program's website. Voters in the county did not report it — she was shown the video by a co-worker and emphasized she was not "fooled" by it.

"All they were doing was going between two websites on their desktop. But when you add death metal music in the background and you know it is something dealing with elections, it's a spooky video. It's creepy," Robertson said.

The video, which was first reported by Vice, opens with footage of Trump making disparaging comments about mail-in ballots. It then shows someone claiming to hack voting data and trying to produce a fraudulent ballot through the Federal Voting Assistance Program website.

Jesse Littlewood, vice president of campaigns at watchdog group Common Cause, said emails and videos meant to make the elections system look insecure or suspicious follow a pattern of attempts to "shake people's faith in the integrity of our elections."

The problem is not exclusively foreign either, he added.

"We have seen some domestic bad actors use disinformation to create mistrust and it has had measurable effects," Littlewood said. "These examples try to prey on and stoke people's fear, and that has been amplified."


David Brody, an attorney at the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights who is familiar with the video, said "the video is BS."

"This is not a risk. This is not a real threat. This is an attempt to sow doubt and chaos and confusion in the election," said Brody, who specializes in privacy, technology and hate groups. "The voting systems are secure and no one can actually do what the video is purporting to do. It doesn't work that way."

And no more of the threatening emails were being reported by voters Thursday in Alachua, Citrus and Collier counties, three of the six counties targeted by the emails, according to local officials. Voters in those counties have not reported any videos, local officials said.

The offices of seven supervisors of elections contacted by the Herald on Thursday, including Citrus, Alachua, Collier, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Broward and Okaloosa, said they were unaware of any briefing from the FBI about the efforts by Iran to interfere in the elections or to send voters emails. When two Florida counties' election systems were hacked by Russian intelligence agents in 2016, supervisors received briefings.

The Florida Department of State did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether it was made aware of any videos described by Ratcliffe. Department spokesman Mark Ard said on Wednesday night that state officials were aware of the emails.

Okaloosa Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux said voters in his county did not report emails or videos, but said the voter data is public information.

"They don't have to hack anything. All they have to do is ask the state for it," Lux said.

Lux, the former head of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections, said supervisors have long pushed the Florida Legislature to dial back the amount of voter data that is publicly available.

Robertson, the Collier County elections department spokeswoman, said most voters who received the mail were scared and concerned that someone had obtained their information.

However, the registration email is a public record and could be obtained without a breach.

Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, said he was positive the party's internal voter data was not accessed, and reiterated that the data accessed is public.

"Our internal data is very secure," he wrote in a text message.


(Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.)

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