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Florida voters face intimidation by armed men and alleged Iranian email threats

Iran summons Swiss envoy in Tehran to protest 'baseless' US accusations, as Florida election authorities scramble to protect voting in key swing state
Supporter of US President Donald Trump wears Proud Boys T-shirt prior to arrival at NBC News town hall event in Miami on 15 October (AFP/File photo)
By in
Tampa, Florida

Voter intimidation in Florida, pivotal to November's presidential election as the largest American swing state, has run rampant this week, with voters receiving seemingly foreign-sent emails disguised as white supremacist threats and armed men showing up at an early voting site in one of the state's critical counties.

The emails appear to have come from the far-right group Proud Boys, showing a "from" address of [email protected] Still, US officials have said the threatening messages were actually the work of the Iranian government. 

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"Vote for Trump or else!" read the subject line of the emails, which were sent to voters in heavily Democratic counties in Florida on Tuesday. 

"We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone… everything)," the message said. "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 Proud Boys, designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, said it was not responsible for the emails.  

In the US, voter names, addresses, birth dates, party affiliations, phone numbers and email addresses are publicly available online. 

Emails to 'damage President Trump?'

John Ratcliffe, the US director of national intelligence, said the emails were an Iranian attempt to undermine democratic confidence. 

"We have already seen Iran sending spoof emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President Trump," Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe levied the claim without sharing specific evidence and did not explain how the emails, which warned recipients to vote for Trump "or else", were intended to damage the president.

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On Thursday, Iran summoned its Swiss envoy, which handles its US affairs, and condemned the "baseless accusations of meddling in the US election", Iranian state TV reported

Hours after Ratcliffe’s announcement, the spokesman for Iran’s mission at the UN described the allegations as "absurd".

"Iran has no interest in interfering in the US election and no preference for the outcome," spokesman Alireza Miryousefi told ABC News.

US intelligence agencies and big tech companies have warned for years of Iranian, Chinese and Russian interference within America's voting apparatus, identifying Russia as the biggest threat. 

Source code embedded in dozens of the emails pointed to the use of servers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Estonia, and Singapore, according to numerous analysts.

The IP addresses don't necessarily establish that the senders were based in those countries, as they may have been routed through those servers from anywhere. 

Proud Boys, 'stand back and stand by'

The Proud Boys garnered international attention during the last presidential debate, as former Vice President Joe Biden suggested that Trump denounce the group specifically, since he had refused to condemn white supremacy in general. 

Instead, Trump said the Proud Boys should "stand back and stand by". During a later interview, Trump did condemn white supremacy, but has not dissociated himself from the Proud Boys.

During the debate, Trump also said he was “urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully". 

The president has repeatedly tweeted a call for an "army" of poll-watchers to show up at voting places and prevent election fraud.

In Pinellas County of Florida, one of the state's most important and contested races, two of his supporters did just that, showing up at an early voting site dressed as security guards with guns and a tent.  

Pinellas County elections supervisor Julie Marcus, a Republican, told WFLA, NBC's Tampa affiliate, that the men arrived at the site in St Petersburg on Wednesday and set up a tent, telling sheriff’s deputies they’d been hired by the Trump campaign. 

Guns are barred from polling places in Florida, one of seven states to do so. 

"The sheriff and I take this very seriously," Marcus told WFLA. "Voter intimidation, deterring voters from voting, impeding a voter’s ability to cast a ballot in this election is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in any way, shape, or form."

The Trump campaign has denied hiring the men.

"The campaign did not hire these individuals nor did the campaign direct them to go to the voting location," deputy press secretary Thea McDonald told WFLA.

The men told officers they would be back on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear whether they had returned.

'Trump's Army'

The Trump campaign has hired more than a dozen field generals to organise election day poll-watching operations in key battleground states, with volunteers known as "Trump's Army". 

During an online training session that was recorded on video and shared with ABC News this month, Jesse Law, a political operative hired to run operations in Nevada, told volunteers that they are training a force of 50,000 people to observe voting sites. 

Law said volunteers were not to interfere with voters, but were there to flag issues for lawyers, especially if they believe they are witness to acts of voter fraud, which experts say is a non-issue in the United States. 

"Ask questions. We're there as observers," Law told trainees in the video. "And if it's real bad, we'll send mean, nasty, terrible, horrible people called lawyers. And be prepared to escalate."

The Biden campaign has said it also plans to have volunteers and lawyers present at precincts in 21 key states. 

Partisans had been banned from observing from inside voting precincts since the 1980s, after a court ruled that Republican volunteers had been systematically harassing and intimidating voters in a manner that violated the Voting Rights Act. 

In 2018, a new court ruling lifted those restrictions. However, each state has some form of restriction on political activities near polling places on election days.