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FBI probes emails sent to county clerks across Colorado and 13 other states

Emails were part of Yale professor's research
Posted at 10:49 PM, Nov 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-07 22:49:26-05

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office and ranking federal law enforcement sources said Monday a Yale University professor’s research caused concern at county clerk offices across Colorado and 13 other states.

The state reached out to the FBI and Homeland Security and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation after learning about emails sent to clerks in several states asking basic questions about the upcoming election. Officials ultimately determined the emails were not malicious but the state estimated it spent hundreds of hours investigating the possibility.

Our sister station, Denver7 Investigates, obtained several examples of the emails, which were sent from several different names and email addresses but contained the same outline of questions:

“My name is Karim and I hope you are well. I found your contact information in a voting resources directory and I want to ask about the voting process. What do I need to bring to vote? I want to vote for president but I did not register with a political party. Do I have to do that before I vote. And if I have to work late will I still be able to vote in time.”

Clerks in several states including California and Michigan and multiple Colorado counties reported receiving the same basic emails from people with names like Mustafa, Gregory, Jason and Jacob. Every example email came from the domain ajnmail.net. Additionally, some of the emails mentioned specifically the emailer wanted to vote for either Trump or Clinton.

“I think it's irresponsible in this climate and this close to an election to send out what is essentially spam to all of our county clerks to try and conduct essentially a lab experiment for academia,” Colorado Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert told Denver7 Investigates.

“Hundreds of man hours” spent

On Nov. 1, the National Association of Secretaries of State alerted its members about the emails being reported in multiple states. The Colorado Secretary of State then relayed the alert to county clerks across the state, who quickly began reporting they too had received similar emails.

“Any time we get anything that looks like somebody trying to hack our system, or somebody trying to infiltrate, then we are going to send it to these different agencies to try and track down where it comes from,” Staiert said.

“What kind of impact and hours and concern did this have on this office and clerks and recorders throughout the state?” Denver7 Investigates asked the Secretary of State’s chief information security officer, Rich Schliep.

“Considering the volume of the emails, the amount of time that it took the clerks and recorders to respond, and the time that it took us to investigate... hundreds of man hours,” Schliep responded.

Schliep said the state quickly determined the emails were not a phishing or hacking attempt, as they did not contain any links or attachments, but still had to work to determine the source and motivation behind the emails.

Schliep said he examined the emails and traced them back to Yale University.

“The minute I saw it went back to Yale … I provided all the email headers and various samples to the FBI and said this is most likely an experiment or someone trying to waste our time,” he said.

Purpose of the experiment?

A Yale law school spokesperson told Denver7 Investigates the university does not have a class project involving students emailing county clerks. Instead, the spokesperson said, “Professor Ian Ayres has been engaging in independent scholarship concerning voter access.”

Ayres did not respond to several requests from Denver7 Investigates to discuss his research.

Ayres is a lawyer and an economist at the Yale Law School and Yale's School of Management

A nationally respected statistician and best-selling author, Ayres did a 2008 study that found blacks and Hispanics were "over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested" more often than whites by the Los Angeles Police Department officers. He conducted the study for the American Civil Liberties Union.

In other studies, Ayres has found racial bias in the tipping of taxi drivers and the cost of car purchases.

It is possible the current research is modeled after research out of Harvard University conducted in 2012 in which researchers sent emails to election officials from four different names: “Jose Martinez,” “Luis Rodriguez,” “Greg Walsh” and “Jake Mueller,” trying to determine the effects of voter ID laws.

The researchers wrote they found “emails sent from Latino aliases are significantly less likely to receive any response from local election officials than non-Latino white aliases and receive responses of lower quality.”

“The system worked”

The Colorado Secretary of State’s IT team worked late into the night after discovering the emails to make sure there was no security threat.

The National Association of Secretaries of State said in a statement, “The good news is, our network response was quick and highly successful … State cybersecurity teams have been notified, and much like in Colorado, the domains have been blocked and no further issues have been reported.”

“Yes, the system worked,” Staiert told Denver7 Investigates. “But we all had to be distracted by something that had nothing to do with the running of this election.”

“It is frustrating and I wish that they hadn't done it because I'd rather be spending my time doing more important things,” Schliep said. “I would like to see, in the future, people not do this. Be part of making a successful election instead.”