At a time of hyperpolarization over voting and elections, Democrats and Republicans had largely managed to agree on one thing — that a little-known data-sharing consortium of more than 30 states has helped keep voter rolls updated and free of opportunities for fraud.
Now, ERIC’s survival is in jeopardy, with Republican-led states withdrawing, others threatening to do so and heated disputes breaking out among members over how to save the organization.
On Monday, three more states — Florida, Missouri and West Virginia — pulled out, further threatening the group’s prospects. Should ERIC collapse, its boosters say the country would lose one of its most powerful tools for keeping ballot fraud at bay just as states are beginning to prepare for the 2024 election calendar.
“Why would people who purport to want more election integrity seek to damage the best tool out there?” asked David Becker, who helped found ERIC in 2012 with seven states when he led the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and watched it grow over the ensuing decade. “The only thing I can come up with is they don’t actually want election integrity. They want more chaos.”
ERIC’s founding members thought they had devised the perfect way to impose sound voter-roll practices on states while keeping Republicans and Democrats happy in an area fraught with mutual suspicions. The organization requires member states to share data with one another from their voter-registration rolls and motor vehicle records — and to periodically use the reports that ERIC compiles to help them remove from their rolls people who have died or moved away. The system can also be used to help identify and prosecute those who have double-voted across state lines.
New members also are required to send a postcard to every eligible, unregistered voter in their state encouraging them to register to vote. They must repeat the exercise with newly eligible voters before every federal election.
The point of the two prongs of ERIC’s mission is to give incentives to both Republicans, who tend to emphasize rigorous list maintenance, and Democrats, who focus on encouraging voter registration, to join the organization. It worked: By early 2022, 34 states — red, blue and everything in between — had joined the consortium. Members include Texas and Ohio, Massachusetts and Minnesota — and all six of the most closely contested battlegrounds from the 2020 presidential election.
In the aftermath of that election, however, when Trump launched an unrelenting campaign to overturn the result and spread false claims that his defeat had been rigged, ERIC became the subject of unproven attacks. Because it was founded in part with help from Pew, which received funding from liberal donor George Soros’s organization, some Trump allies called it a left-wing, Soros-backed operation. (ERIC operates on taxpayer-funded dues from member states and has never received funding from Soros.)
Critics have also taken aim at Becker, who now leads the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research. They have accused him, without evidence, of sharing ERIC data with liberal groups, and they have claimed that the real purpose of the group is to blindly encourage voter registration, not to maintain registration lists.
“Make no mistake — taxpayer-funded voter registration is a sea change in the way Americans run elections,” conservative commentator Hayden Ludwig wrote in the American Conservative in October. “In practice, it means receiving a voter registration or mail-in ballot application when seniors file for Social Security benefits, Native Americans seek treatment from Indian Health Services, or students apply for federal college loans. Few conservatives are aware of the left’s utter fixation on the power of voter registration.”
State and local governments actually have a long tradition of helping fund and manage voter-registration efforts. But such misinformation has prompted some states to pull out of ERIC and others to consider doing so. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) withdrew in January 2022, and Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen (R) did so at the start of this year, on his second day in office, after campaigning on that promise.
Secretaries of state in Florida, Missouri and West Virginia all cited the undue “partisanship” of ERIC’s direction and, without naming him, protested Becker’s role as a nonvoting, ex officio member of the organization’s board in announcing their departures Monday. Florida and Missouri also cited unsubstantiated claims that ERIC handles state voter data in an insecure way as among their rationales for exiting.
“I have an obligation to protect the personal information of Florida’s citizens, which the ERIC agreement requires us to share,” Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd wrote of the decision. “Florida has tried to back reforms to increase protections, but these protections were refused. Therefore, we have lost confidence in ERIC.”
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said five of Missouri’s eight border states aren’t members of ERIC anyway, and that’s where most people move from. “Look, Missouri is going to continue to clean our voter rolls,” Ashcroft said in an interview. “I believe we have some of the best, if not the best, elections in the country, and we will continue to do that without ERIC.”
Florida is a particularly hard hit for ERIC, owing to its population and the wealth of data it shared with the other consortium members. The state’s decision to withdraw came following a January report from its new Office of Election Crimes and Security that claimed data from the consortium identified more than 1,000 voters who may have cast ballots in Florida as well as another member state. (Member states are required to investigate ERIC’s voter participation data to confirm instances of double voting.)
State lawmakers are also considering legislation to withdraw in Republican-led Texas. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose distributed a letter Monday suggesting that he, too, will consider withdrawing if reforms are not instituted. No Democratic-run states have taken similar steps.
Ardoin said at the time that he made the decision “amid concerns raised by citizens, government watchdog organizations and media reports about potential questionable funding sources and that possibly partisan actors may have access to ERIC network data for political purposes, potentially undermining voter confidence.”
Allen, of Alabama, has been more pointed in his criticism — claiming without evidence that ERIC mishandles state data. In late February, while attending a conference of secretaries of state in Washington, Allen stopped by the mailing address listed on ERIC’s website, only to discover a company called Expansive that rents out office space by the day.
“Before I took office, Alabama transmitted the personal information of millions of our citizens to this private organization for the past several years,” Allen said in a statement issued after the Washington trip. “That information is stored on a server somewhere but we do not know where. There is no ERIC operation at the location they claim is their office. A lot of personal data and taxpayer money has been transferred to ERIC. Where is that data? Where are the employees? Where are the offices? Where are the computers?”
In an interview, ERIC executive director Shane Hamlin explained that the group contracts with Expansive to use its Washington office as a mailing address only. He said ERIC’s entire staff works remotely, so there is no need for office space. And he explained that ERIC’s data is stored by a reputable data company in a secure location within the United States — information that member states, including Alabama, have access to.
Last Wednesday, Hamlin issued a statement seeking to “set the record straight” on what he described as “recent misinformation.” The statement explained that ERIC is member-funded and member-run, is never connected to state registration systems and uses “widely accepted” security protocols to handle sensitive data.
The data is encrypted on its way to ERIC — the process is explained in technical detail on the group’s website — and encrypted again on its way back to the states. Personal information such as driver’s license number, date of birth or Social Security number is not shared with outside groups and would be unreadable if it were, Hamlin said.
Officials from states that have already pulled out of ERIC or are considering doing so say they are confident that they can keep their voter rolls clean without the shared data.
Others say three pieces of data that ERIC provides are especially valuable: national change-of-address records from the U.S. Postal Service, which some member states receive from ERIC as frequently as once a month; death records from the Social Security Administration, which are costly; and voter participation records, which enable member states to identify and prosecute voters who fraudulently cast ballots in more than one state.
Georgia, for instance, used ERIC data to remove 114,000 voters from its rolls who had either died or moved out of the state, according to the secretary of state’s office.
ERIC is not merely a conduit for the data; it matches it to each state’s existing voters — a level of scrutiny that election officials said is otherwise unavailable to most election offices.
“That’s its value,” said one state election official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly. “I can buy the [change of address and Social Security records]. But what I can’t do is spend millions of dollars to create matching software to match the information in those files to my voter rolls.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said election officials who “pull out of the organization harm their own ability to keep their state’s voter list accurate.”
Much of the controversy over how to sustain ERIC revolves around whether to continue to mandate the two principal components of the membership agreement — the requirements to encourage voter registration and to use ERIC’s data to scour voter rolls for inaccuracies.
A number of member states have advocated making those two provisions optional to prevent more states from withdrawing, arguing that keeping as many states in the consortium as possible should be the primary goal so that the data-sharing can continue for those that choose to use it. Other members have argued that eliminating the mandates could cause Democratic-run states that favor the voter-registration piece to withdraw.
Depending on their population, states pay anywhere from $26,000 to $116,000 to belong to ERIC, which last year had a budget of about $1.5 million. In addition, states must pay mail costs to fulfill the voter-registration requirement.
ERIC’s members are scheduled to meet on March 17, with plans to vote on a proposed reform that would require all member states to conduct the voter-registration and most list-maintenance functions at least once, but make those functions optional thereafter.
It’s unclear if that proposal will pass, but there is broad consensus that more states will leave if no reforms are adopted, cutting off data-sharing with those states and bringing the organization closer to collapse.
“The stakes,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon (D), an ERIC supporter, “are very high here.”
Lori Rozsa in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.