Nearly 50 suspicious emails — including two dozen with ties to Russia — recently were sent to the Texas Democratic Party, trying to register for political gatherings that could have led the senders to the party's state convention in Fort Worth this summer.
But party officials say this move, the latest example of potential Russian interference in U.S. elections, was unsuccessful.
"We don't know what their goal was," said Glen Maxey, a former state lawmaker from Austin who serves as legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party. "Russians are attempting to get into voting systems around the country.
"The system caught it," he said. "They tried to register and they failed. No Russians are coming to Fort Worth."
Even so, at a time where top cyber officials say Russia remains determined to disrupt U.S. elections, and 13 Russians already have been indicted on charges of interfering with the 2016 presidential election, political observers say the questionable emails should be a concern.
"Russian election meddling didn’t stop in 2016 and has clearly infested the Lone Star State," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. "The targets are now the party systems instead of voter registration systems. The parties and the state must be as vigilant as ever in weeding out foreign influence in Texas elections.
"This latest intrusion is modest but suggests a new nefarious strategy to influence elections."
This comes after Dallas County election officials said last year that Russian hackers unsuccessfully tried to access voter registration rolls there. If they had been successful, and had been able to delete or manipulate the voter database, officials said there could have been big problems on Election Day.
How it began
Republican and Democratic precinct and senatorial conventions — which lead to delegates being chosen to attend their party's state convention — are scheduled Saturday.
Maxey recently decided to double-check online registrations for the Democratic conventions.
When he looked at the list of registrations that automatically had been rejected, he found 48 emails from people who didn't cite a Texas address.
Two dozen of those emails had Russian domain names and Russia-based IP addresses.
Among the names of the Russian email senders: Patsy Beer, Roxie Male, Michaela Beaumont, Lily Abbott, Mei Mickey and Gustavo Chubb.
"If these folks are attempting to go on to any political site and get in, it gives another data point for folks trying to influence elections," Maxey said. "For whatever reason they went to this system, I have no idea."
The Star-Telegram sent emails to the Russian email addresses asking whether the sender was trying to register for the Democratic convention. No one responded.
"The fact that they are using Russian email addresses suggest they aren't really trying to hide anything," said Robert Lowry, a political science professor at UT Dallas. "So maybe this is just an attempt to create some confusion and sow doubt in the overall integrity of the process."
Republican officials say similar problems were not found through their convention registration process, likely because potential delegates have to register in person and not online.
"All delegates are selected in person after being verified on the voter rolls," James Dickey, who heads the Republican Party of Texas, has told the media.
Trolls or Russians?
Maxey said he wasn't sure which agency to contact about the emails, but he wanted to draw attention to them.
Texas secretary of state officials say they reached out to him after learning what he found.
"It's important to note that the party conventions are wholly separate and apart from any of our voting systems and the statewide voter registration database," said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the state elections office. "The Democratic and Republican parties of Texas are private entities and our office does not have purview over either their cybersecurity operations or the registration process for their state party conventions."
He said the FBI or Department of Homeland Security would be the best agencies to contact in the future. And he noted that security measures for county elections have been strengthened.
"Our office is focused on ensuring that our state's election system remains secure and that all Texans can cast a ballot with confidence," he said.
Some say the suspicious emails may well have been sent by anyone — pranksters, trolls or Russians.
"I suspect that this is another attempt by Russia to interfere with the US electoral process," said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who heads the political science department at the University of North Texas in Denton. "They may be emboldened because there has been little coordinated effort by the U.S. government to make this a top priority.
"I’d be more interested to know if other state parties have experienced something similar," he said. "Hopefully, there is a mechanism in place where these anomalies can be reported and shared so that the proper authorities can monitor the situation and improve detection of election tampering."
A local target?
Texans chosen during Saturday's political gatherings will move on to their party's state conventions this summer — a time to reinvigorate grassroots members to present a united front in the November general election.
GOP officials, who agree that more security is needed now in today's digital age, say no unusual emails or correspondence have been received locally.
"The Russians are not meddling in Tarrant County Republican politics," Tarrant County Republican Party Chairman Tim O'Hare said. "Absolutely not."
Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said it's crucial to remain vigilant and protect against potential Russian interference with the party convention being held in Fort Worth.
"The Russians will stop at nothing to put their candidates in office. Texas, and specifically Tarrant County, would be of interest," she said. "Two years ago, during the last election cycle, we never would have thought Texas would remotely be in play for anything purple or blue. That has changed. And that would be of interest to anyone who is adverse to change."
But Peoples said she believes the convention team will be able to prevent any interference.
"I think we have a good team working on it now," she said. "But you never say never. That is why the people who are planning our convention are hyper vigilant to any type of interference.
"Should Russians try to hack into our system, they would be caught quickly."