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Why GOP Govs. Are Rushing to Quit Project for Clean Voter Data

Spreading conspiracy theories, Republicans undermine the bipartisan ERIC database.
by Jim Swift
May 15, 2023
Why GOP Govs. Are Rushing to Quit Project for Clean Voter Data
SIMI VALLEY, CA - MAY 1: Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia speaks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on May 1, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. Youngkin was speaking as part of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute's A Time for Choosing speaker series, a forum for leading consertive movement voices to address the future of the Republican Party. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In 2012, the Electronic Information Registration Center, or ERIC, was created with backing from the Pew Charitable Trust. Seven states were original members: Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. It eventually grew to count thirty states and Washington, D.C. as members.

The small D.C.-based organization has an annual budget of around a million dollars. But its relatively modest size belies the fact that ERIC does important work to help member states keep their voter rolls up to date.

The antecedents to ERIC were things like “Voter Vault” and “Demzilla,” national voter databases built and maintained by the Republicans and Democrats, respectively. Their main purpose was to aid get-out-the-vote efforts. Each was cobbled together from a variety of sources, and each was maintained with the assumption that combating voter fraud was, if anything at all, a secondary or tertiary purpose of the compiled data.

Since those days, voter databases have gotten far more powerful. And maintaining them has become far less partisan, thanks to ERIC. Under the ERIC system, every two months member states submit their voter registration and DMV and state ID data. From this information and other sources, ERIC creates four products:

  1. Cross-State Movers Report: Identifies voters who appear to have moved from one ERIC state to another using voter registration data and Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) data.
  2. In-State Movers Report: Identifies voters who appear to have moved within the state using voter registration and MVD data.
  3. Duplicate Report: Identifies voters with duplicate registrations in the same state using voter registration data.
  4. Deceased Report: Identifies voters who have died using voter registration data and Social Security death data known as the Limited Access Death Master File.

To the GOP of yore—of, say, the Tea Party era—this all sounded like a dream: a privately funded nonprofit getting states to cooperate in an effective way for a de minimis amount of money to cut down on voter fraud before it even happens.

But tempus sure does fugit, and Republicans of a more recent vintage have decided that there’s something shadowy and concerning about this type of arrangement.

And yes, it has to do with the batshit crazy Republican war on voting computers, the war that has recently caused Fox News a $787 million headache.

Since the 2020 election, eight states have informed ERIC that they’re leaving the group—all of them red-led states: Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama, Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Florida, and now Virginia all have pulled out. Texas, which only just joined in 2020, is rumbling about leaving but has not yet withdrawn.

Since Trump lost, right-wing groups have latched on to conspiracy theories about ERIC being a left-wing effort—a George Soros project, some (falsely) claim. In reality, the ERIC board is made up of elections officials from member states.

The justifications offered by those who are leaving range from “benefits to Missouri are limited as only three of the eight states that border Missouri are members” (as if departing Missourians don’t move to any non-contiguous states) to states being denied the ability to “select ERIC services in à la carte fashion” without mandates stipulated by the organization.

One such mandate that reportedly irks conservatives is the requirement that states participating in the ERIC database “must use the Eligible but Unregistered Report to provide basic voter registration information to unregistered individuals, including the legal requirements to register.” Can’t have more people voting, no siree!

Former President Trump, naturally, has played a role in smearing ERIC. Here’s a Truth Social post that went up the day in early March that Florida and two other Republican-led states announced they were leaving:

ERIC may indeed have been too good at getting unregistered voters to get on the rolls—and for Republicans, that’s a problem. Ohio and Missouri wanted to opt out of the mandatory eligible voter outreach, for example. In 2018, the New York Times reported: “Follow-up research in some states concluded that 10 to 20 percent of those contacted had later registered to vote, a high response rate for direct mailings.” That’s potentially millions of new voters.

The Brennan Center for Justice observes:

States that are going along with these fringe attacks have given conflicting and inaccurate reasons for pulling out of ERIC. While Missouri objected to ERIC’s restrictions on states’ use of data as excessive, Florida and Alabama stated they were leaving because the group does not protect data privacy enough.

There is no other national election clearinghouse. ERIC is it. In leaving, these states have damaged it—and that’s the point. The more states leave, the less useful and effective it becomes, and the likelier that still other states will exit it.

The latest state to formally withdraw is Virginia, led by supposed moderate Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

Previewing things to come last year was incendiary Virginia talk-radio host John Fredericks, an election denier (who falsely claimed Youngkin was also one) who had a live audience say the Pledge of Allegiance before an insurrectionist flag in 2021, something Youngkin rightly observed was “weird and wrong.” For whatever reason, Gov. Youngkin still goes on his show, and last year, Fredericks asked this:

The Department of Elections, we know there’s a number, Gov. Youngkin, of partisan, left-wing nonprofits that have deeply infiltrated the Department of Elections in Virginia. . . . Do you have any plans to clean house in there?

Gov. Youngkin’s presence on the show and answer fits the pattern of cowardice that got him into the governor’s mansion: When presented with unfounded insanity, don’t confront it. A normal pol with a spine might ask: “Oh, which nonprofits? How? What are they doing?” Not Glenn Youngkin. He said the short answer was “Yes.”

Shortly thereafter, Gov. Youngkin appointed Susan Beals to run Virginia’s elections. Beals previously served on the election board in Chesterfield, a Richmond suburb, and on the staff of Amanda Chase, the state senator who was Youngkin’s kooky primary opponent in 2021. (Weirdly, Chase at first opposed her former staffer’s appointment to the new job because Beals didn’t buy into all of the 2020 election nonsense.)

“ERIC’s mandate has expanded beyond that of its initial intent—to improve the accuracy of voter rolls,” Beals wrote last week in a letter announcing that Virginia would be withdrawing from ERIC—of which, again, Virginia was one of the founding members, under a previous Republican governor. “We will pursue other information arrangements with our neighboring states and look to other opportunities to partner with states in an apolitical fashion.”

Not everyone in Virginia’s executive branch buys into the worst characterizations of ERIC. Josh Lief, a lawyer in Attorney General Jason Miyares’s office, last year defended ERIC in response to conspiratorial claims. Now that Virginia has withdrawn, though, Miyares is being a good soldier and agreeing with the decision.

When Beals took office, she told Virginians that she would “strive to meet the goals of the department’s strategic plan which seek to increase voter confidence in the election process and strengthen the security of the Commonwealth’s elections.”

Leaving ERIC is plainly at odds with this goal. Voter confidence is a fickle thing, but leaving the ERIC consortium clearly weakens the security of the Commonwealth’s elections.

The 2022 Virginia Elections Handbook observes: “In 2016, 37,803 voters were identified as potentially having registered in one of the other states after their last date of activity in Virginia.” That’s thanks to ERIC. No more.

Going into the 2024 election, Virginia and the seven other Republican-led states that have quit ERIC are going to have to stand up their own solutions to voter fraud. Unless, you know, Republicans might like to talk about being tough on voter fraud and blame it on Democrats when the actual facts look very different. Care to guess why?

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.