TAMPA — The FBI confirmed Wednesday it is investigating fraudulent letters that falsely tell eligible Florida voters they may no longer be U.S. citizens and that they could go to prison if they cast a ballot in the Nov. 6 election.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which launched an investigation Tuesday, the Department of State, local supervisors of elections and the U.S. Postal Service will assist the FBI, said agency spokesman David Couvertier.
"We're trying to figure out what the trend is, if a specific group of voters was targeted or if it was random," Couvertier said. "What was the motive? Was it a statement or something done to influence the election?"
Beginning Friday, voters throughout the state started receiving letters in envelopes with a Seattle postmark. The letters all have the same type of letterhead, with the American flag as a backdrop to a silhouette of a bald eagle in the upper left corner. The sender swapped out the name of the supervisor of elections depending on which county they were received. As of Wednesday, the letters were sent to at least 28 counties, according to Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate.
The letters inform recipients they have 15 days to fill out a voter eligibility form and return it to the elections office. If they don't, they'll be removed from the voter rolls, the letter warns.
State officials have interpreted the letters to be a voter intimidation tactic, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in jail for each offense, or each letter sent. The FBI would examine federal offenses, including mail fraud.
"We don't know the extent of the activity yet," Couvertier said. "We're looking at everything from civil rights violations to potentially voter fraud and everything in between."
Couvertier said the Tampa FBI office is working in concert with the other agencies. It covers 18 counties, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas, all of which got the letters.
Cate said the best estimate of the number of letters sent are "dozens." The recipients so far tend to be Republican, frequent voters, who may even contribute to campaigns. Ion Sancho, Leon County's supervisor of elections, has speculated that the names may have been lifted from a donor list. Jacksonville City Council president Bill Bishop, former U.S. Ambassador John Rood, and Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, all got one.
But there are exceptions. Of the eight people to receive the letters in Pinellas, half are Republican.
The hoax is a puzzling one. If the letters were meant to intimidate people from voting, why were they sent to leaders of the Republican Party, where they're easier to detect?
"There are a lot of theories out there," Couvertier said. "We'll be going through them one by one."
Anyone who got a letter is asked to call the Tampa FBI field office at 1-866-838-1153.