Voters in Florida and Alaska woke up to a chilling message in their email this week: “We are in possession of all your information. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
The messages seemed to be coming from the far-right white supremacist group Proud Boys.
It was a terrifying reminder of America’s long history of white supremacist terrorist tactics used to keep Black Americans from exercising their right to vote.
Intelligence officials have determined the messages were the work of Iranian operatives and that more of this kind of interference could be in store from Russia.
Russian interference in the 2016 election is well-documented — and the largest part of their efforts were aimed at suppressing the Black vote.
Exploitation of American racism by both Russia and Iran extends back through the decades. In the 1960s, KGB and Soviet influence operations were aimed at discrediting Martin Luther King Jr. During the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979, the hostage-takers declared a unified stance with “oppressed minorities” in the United States and released all Black and woman hostages in an attempt to use American racial tensions as a wedge issue. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union stoked racial tensions ahead of the 1984 Olympics.
The simple truth is American racism — which is very real — makes us vulnerable to foreign adversaries intent on weakening our democracy.
The threat of violence contained in the emails sent by Iran appears to be an empty one. And Black voters do not appear to have been singled out in this operation.
But the threat of election-related violence from white supremacist terrorists is real, not an invention of Iran or Russia. In the last presidential election, Neo-Nazis and groups related to the Ku Klux Klan — threatened to send “armies” to Black precincts. Arsonists who set fire to a Baptist Church in Mississippi spray-painted the message “Vote Trump.”
Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, told WBUR, “We are seeing a high level of activity from militia-type groups and other far right organizations discussing the possibility of interfering in the electoral process, either on Election Day or after the ballots are cast.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s threat assessment in October warned that violent extremists might target events related to the 2020 Presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results, or the post-election period. “Among [Domestic Violent Extremists], racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
In the same document, the department also warned that Russian actors would exploit “perceived grievances within minority communities, especially among African Americans” and “engage in efforts to discourage voter turnout and to suppress votes” in the 2020 election just as they did in the 2016 election.
The fact that both foreign and domestic actors have focused their efforts on Black Americans is proof of the power of the Black vote. If your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t fight so hard to block it.
We won’t be intimidated, and we won’t be fooled. Please make a plan to vote, early if possible.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.