Officials in key battleground states say they’re investigating shady robocalls warning residents to stay home on Election Day.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said early Tuesday that her office had received “reports of multiple robocalls going to Flint residents that, due to long lines, they should vote tomorrow”—meaning the day after the election, when polls would be closed. The false claims, Nessel said, were an attempt to “suppress the vote.”
And in Iowa, the Des Moines Register reported that the Secretary of State’s office has contacted the FBI about calls telling voters in the swing state to “stay home, stay safe and don’t vote.” The Federal Communications Commission said it was also aware of reports of misleading calls.
The Secretary of State’s office in Kansas tweeted that it had received reports of robocalls “telling voters to stay home” and urged residents to ignore them.
In Nebraska, state officials received reports of mass robocalls telling state residents to “stay home,” though there was no election-specific message and it’s not clear if voters, in this case, were the target.
John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab, obtained a transcript of one of the calls, in which a robotic voice instructs Nebraskans, “This is just a test call. Time to stay home. Stay safe and stay home.”
Data supplied by the spam-blocking firm Robokiller (which is owned by IAC, the parent company of The Daily Beast) shows that the same message has been around since at least December 2019, with about 287 million transmissions across all 50 states. In September, Canadian news outlet Ottawa Matters reported that police were investigating similar calls to phones in Canada and Australia, as well as the U.S.
Anonymous robotic calls that spread election disinformation have long been a tactic of voter suppression. Bumbling pro-Trump dirty tricksters Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were charged with conspiracy to commit an election law violation and telecommunications fraud in Michigan and Ohio in connection with robocalls that allegedly targeted minority voters in both states with misinformation about mail-in ballots.
The robocalls to voters come as millions of Americans head to the polls and as intelligence officials in the Trump administration brace for the possibility that domestic or foreign actors engage in disinformation efforts to alter the results of the 2020 presidential election. Two senior officials say the administration is monitoring the robocalls and working with state officials to publicly warn voters that the recordings are not authentic.
For weeks, top officials in the intelligence and national security apparatus have worked to track down and mitigate threats to the 2020 presidential election, including threats posed by foreign actors on voting infrastructure and those peddling disinformation.
Director of the Office of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in an unusual Oct. 21 announcement, said his office and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) had identified attempts by both Iran and Russia to undermine confidence in the election. Ratcliffe said Iran had orchestrated an effort to send threatening emails to voters in Pennsylvania and Florida designed to intimidate. The intelligence community has previously said Iran seeks to undermine Donald Trump’s candidacy. In the Oct. 21 briefing, Ratcliffe also said Russia had attempted to meddle in the election but did not give details about that effort.
Officials working on securing the election say states have worked for weeks with CISA to set up surveillance teams to monitor potential infrastructure attacks and that they are concerned about an uptick in disinformation.
One senior administration official said intelligence agencies, working with social media companies, have already begun tracking posts pushing out false narratives about the candidates, including one tweet sent by former Director of the Office of National Intelligence Ric Grennell. Grenell on Nov. 1 published a photo of a maskless Vice President Joe Biden on a plane speaking with one of his staff. "Washington, DC phony! @JoeBiden doesn't wear a mask on a plane - but wears one OUTSIDE!?” Grenell wrote, even though the picture of Biden was taken in 2019 before the pandemic began.