Election 2020

Terrifying: Russia and Iran Accessed U.S. Voter Rolls. Here's What They're Doing With Them

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

On Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe said both Russia and Iran have obtained U.S. voter registration information in an effort to interfere in the 2020 election.

“We would like to alert the public that we have identified that two foreign actors — Iran and Russia — have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections,” Ratcliffe warned.

“We have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran, and separately, by Russia,” he added. “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 presented one particularly chilling example of how Iran has weaponized the voter registration information.

“We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage President [Donald] Trump,” Ratcliffe added. “You may have seen some reporting on this in the last 24 hours, or you may have even been one of the recipients of those emails.”

The DNI was referring to emails claiming to originate from the right-wing “Western chauvinist” group the Proud Boys. The emails addressed to registered Democratic voters warn recipients to “Vote for Trump or else!”

The emails warn, “We are in possession of all your information (email, address, telephone… everything). You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access to the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”

While some have expressed skepticism that these emails could be a spoof operation from Iran designed to harm Trump, rather than to help him, it seems ludicrous to suggest the actual Proud Boys would engage in such blatant (and extremely illegal) voter intimidation. Recipients of the emails would likely respond in anger and become all the more intent on voting for Biden and convincing their neighbors to do so.

Ratcliffe also warned that Iran has distributed a video “that implies that individuals could cast fraudulent ballots, even from overseas. This video, and any claims about such allegedly fraudulent ballots, are not true. … Know that our election systems are resilient and you can be confident your votes are secure.”

“Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter information just as they did in 2016. Rest assured that we are prepared for the possibility of actions by those hostile to democracy,” the DNI added.

“If you receive an intimidating or manipulative email in your inbox, don’t be alarmed and do not spread it,” Ratcliffe added.

In August, the Intelligence Community warned about foreign interference in the 2020 election. William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said that China prefers Joe Biden, Russia prefers Donald Trump, and Iran prefers Biden but really wants internal division in the U.S.

Iran has grown increasingly desperate this year. Following President Trump’s assassination of Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s influence in the Middle East has greatly decreased. Due in part to Soleimani’s death, Trump has been able to secure historic agreements between Arab states and Israel. Meanwhile, Iran has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. intelligence sources have reported that Iran plans to assassinate a U.S. ambassador, and perhaps even President Trump himself.

It seems rather plausible the Proud Boys intimidation emails may really trace back to Iran’s efforts to antagonize Americans against one another and weaken Trump’s reelection chances.

It is truly terrifying that Iran and Russia have accessed America’s voter registration records, but this does not necessarily give Americans reasons to fear that Iran or Russia will be able to tamper with the election results.

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Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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