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News / Politics

Why Republican-led states keep leaving a group that verifies voter rolls

By Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline.org
Published: May 29, 2023, 6:02am

Eight Republican-led states this year left an interstate cooperative that seeks to maintain accurate voter registration rolls, and three more may join them — a move that election security experts say is fueled by conspiracy theories.

Earlier this month, Virginia’s top election official said the state would become the latest to stop participating in the Electronic Registration Information Center, commonly called ERIC, because of concerns over privacy and confidentiality of voter information, among a list of other reasons.

Other states with Republican-led legislatures may soon leave ERIC, including Alaska, Texas and Wisconsin, where lawmakers may propose or already have introduced legislation to leave the cooperative. Republican lawmakers in North Carolina and Oklahoma have also proposed legislation that would prevent their states from joining ERIC.

Election security experts worry the move is part of a larger trend away from nonpartisan election administration, potentially leading to inaccurate voter databases.

To prevent voter fraud, the nonprofit organization compares voter registration data from participating states with federal death and postal records to help states rid voter rolls of people who may have moved or died. Participating states also must send postcards to residents who are eligible to vote but are unregistered.

It’s a disturbing continuation of a trend we’ve seen of a breakdown of bipartisan consensus about good election administration. — Alice Clapman, Brennan Center for Justice

Until this year, ERIC was seen as one of the least controversial election programs in the country, with a mix of red and blue states participating and a mission to not only keep clean voter rolls (a common demand of Republican-led states) but also to encourage voter registration (a priority for Democrats).

But Republican attitudes toward the program changed over the past year with the rise of disinformation surrounding the country’s election systems, fueled by criticism from former President Donald Trump and his allies. Trump falsely claimed that ERIC “‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up.”

The eight states that left the group this year have not entirely mimicked Trump’s language but have complained about its push to help register new voters and about rigid internal rules that make it difficult to change bylaws.

“In short, ERIC’s mandate has expanded beyond that of its initial intent — to improve the accuracy of voter rolls,” wrote Virginia Elections Commissioner Susan Beals in a May 11 letter to ERIC.

Beals, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, said the state would seek information-sharing agreements with its neighboring states in an “apolitical fashion.” Virginia was one of seven founding members of ERIC when it launched in 2012, backed by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.

Another reason Beals cites for leaving ERIC is the “increasing and uncertain costs” associated with the departures of seven other states that have left the cooperative this year: Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia. Twenty-five other states are still in ERIC, which is funded by member states’ fees.

In a March open letter, Shane Hamlin, the organization’s executive director, addressed the “misinformation” surrounding ERIC and defended its voter data security measures.

“ERIC is never connected to any state’s voter registration system,” he wrote. “Members retain complete control over their voter rolls, and they use the reports we provide in ways that comply with federal and state laws.”

The departures have rattled many in the elections field, who say an accurate voter roll is a moving target, because voters move, come of age and die every day.

Alice Clapman, senior counsel in the voting rights program at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, said it is “extremely hypocritical” for Republican leaders who say they want to fight voter fraud to leave a program that helps prevent it by maintaining accurate voter rolls.

“I’m concerned about it,” she said. “It’s a disturbing continuation of a trend we’ve seen of a breakdown of bipartisan consensus about good election administration.”

When Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft joined ERIC in 2018, he thought it would be a good way to have safer, more credible elections by going after multistate voter fraud. But the Republican soon developed concerns over the organization’s mandate that states reach out to residents who are not registered to vote, which he said is “a waste of money” and could be viewed as partisan.

“I’m harassing people that already said, ‘No,’” he said in an interview with Stateline. “Why am I involved with that? I’ll make it easy to register and if there are problems with that system I’ll listen, and we’ll improve it.”

Ashcroft said he argued for months for systemic changes to ERIC to no avail, including advocating for the removal of a “hyperpartisan individual” on the organization’s board, alluding to David Becker, who helped found ERIC and was a non-voting member.

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Becker, who is now the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, a nonprofit that supports local election officials nationwide, has been one of the nation’s most vocal critics of the election disinformation and denialism that spread after Trump falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Becker left ERIC in March, attributing his departure to a heavy personal workload.

Becker has been disappointed to see ERIC lose states.

“It’s unfortunate that some states are succumbing to that ongoing onslaught of disinformation,” he told Stateline when he left ERIC. “If people are going to make decisions based on politics, there’s really nothing you can do to stop them.”

Some Republicans have defended the utility of ERIC, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who said in March that states that prioritize “actual election integrity over politics are going to stay in ERIC,” giving them more accurate voter rolls than those states that left.

In California, a Democratic-sponsored proposal to join ERIC, currently making its way through committees in the state Assembly, enjoys bipartisan support.

ERIC will still be a useful tool for the remaining states, especially if California joins, said Pamela Smith, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Verified Voting, noting the state accounts for a tenth of the voters in the country.

“When that bill gets through the process, it will be sizable in its impact given the quantity of data involved,” she said, “offsetting much of the lost data from states recently departing.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

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