People wait in line to cast their ballots during early voting at the Miami-Dade County Election Department in Florida on October 20, 2020. Photo: AFP / Chandan Khanna

Russian and Iran have both obtained US voter information and taken actions to influence public opinion ahead of the November 3 election, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday.

Ratcliffe said Iran specifically had sent “spoofed” emails to Americans “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.”

He said Iran had also distributed a video that implies that people could send in fraudulent ballots, including from outside the United States.

Ratcliffe said both Iran and Russia seek to “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine confidence in American democracy.”

“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” he said.

The announcement came after registered Democratic voters reported receiving personally addressed emails in the name of the Proud Boys armed militia group, and from an internet domain linked to the Proud Boys.

A number of voters in Florida and other key states in the election battle between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden said they had gotten the messages.

“You will vote for Trump on election day or we will come after you,” the emails said.

Ratcliffe, with FBI Director Christopher Wray beside him, did not explain how the Russians and Iranians had obtained the voter information, or how the Russians might be using it.

‘Undermine public confidence’

But US voter registration information is widely available, with some states allowing anyone to access it while others restrict it to political parties.

US intelligence has repeatedly warned that Russia, Iran and, to a lesser extent, China had taken part in social media disinformation efforts aimed at influencing US voters.

In 2016, US officials say, Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw hacking and social media operations aimed at helping Trump to election victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Iran’s alleged use of the Proud Boys name in emails came after Trump refused to distance himself, and appeared to encourage, the group, which has appeared at political rallies heavily armed, and menacing others.

In early October 13 men in Michigan, some of whom identified themselves with the group, were arrested for plotting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor and “instigate a civil war”. 

Wray stressed that US election systems remained safe.

“We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” he said.

“We’ve been working for years as a community to build resilience in our infrastructure and today that infrastructure remains resilient – you should be confident that your vote counts.”

The Florida messages purportedly from the Proud Boys all have the same text but are addressed to voters by name.

“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,” reads the email. 

“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 message ends, adding the voter’s address. “Good luck.”

Public information in state voting records in the US include a person’s name, address and party affiliation.

The Alachua County sheriff’s office in northern Florida said via Facebook that it is”aware of an email that is circulating, purported to be from the Proud Boys.”

The message “appears to be a scam and we will be initiating an investigation into the source of the email” along with help from FBI agents and state election officials.

The Miami Herald reported that University of Florida students received these emails, all coming from the address:

The Proud Boys is a white nationalist hate group known for its misogyny and Islamophobia, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups nationwide.

The group made headlines when Trump refused to condemn them in his first debate with his Democratic rival Joe Biden on September 29.

Instead he asked them to “stand back and stand by.”

Enrique Tarrio, a Proud Boys leader and Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that his group had nothing to do with the emails.

A Republican Party spokesperson earlier told AFP that Tarrio’s Latinos for Trump group is not affiliated with the party, and denied all ties with the Proud Boys.

Similar email messages were received in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona – where, as in Florida, Trump is in a tight race with Biden. 

Lawyers flocking in

Hundreds of attorneys and volunteers from the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden have deployed to Florida polling stations to make sure votes for their candidates are respected, as record numbers of people cast ballots early.

Tensions are especially high as fear about the coronavirus and violence at polling stations is compounded by Florida’s history of contested elections that have ended in recounts or even court battles.

Florida, where Republican Trump and Democrat Biden are practically tied, accounts for 29 crucial electoral votes, with 270 needed to win the US presidency on November 3.

“We cannot trust those Democrats,” said Cristiano Piquet, 43, a Republican and Brazilian-American who was casting his early vote at a Miami polling station while carrying a US flag. 

“They’re pure evil and they are capable of anything, so I want to make sure that my vote counts,” he told AFP, explaining why he voted early instead of by mail.

This is the type of fear that attorney Juan Carlos Planas – one of the 1,421 registered observers in south Florida’s densely populated Miami-Dade County – wants to allay.

“There’s never been a credible case of election fraud in the general election,” Planas told AFP. 

He is a former Republican state representative who has observed elections previously – and this year is observing for the Democrats.

“Here there really isn’t any sort of fraud or let alone massive fraud; it just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Florida’s 14 million registered voters can vote by mail, a method widely used since 2002 and preferred by Democrats in part to keep people away from crowds and safe from the virus.

Trump, however, has made his distrust of the mail-in system clear – even though he has voted by mail in the past in Florida, where he has his residence, and has said that Florida’s mail-in system is trustworthy.

Floridians can also cast ballots in-person at an early voting station, like Piquet did, or on November 3, when Republicans are expected to vote in large numbers.

Tense environment

Florida’s most memorable contested election occurred in 2000, when a mere 537 votes gave the state – and the presidency -– to Republican George W Bush over Democrat Al Gore.

In 2018 a recount was needed to confirm that the current governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, won.

Meanwhile in 2016, Russian intelligence hacked into the electoral system of at least one Florida county, according to the FBI.

Adding to the uncertainty are cases of voter intimidation.

The photo of a police officer in full uniform with a facemask emblazoned with “Trump 2020” at a polling station generated heated controversy on social media.

“We are aware of the photograph,” the Miami Police Department tweeted. “This behavior is unacceptable, a violation of departmental policy, and is being addressed immediately.”

As of Wednesday more than 2.95 million Floridians had voted by mail, state election officials said, surpassing the 2.73 million mail-in ballots in the 2016 presidential election with two weeks still to go.