A seemingly inoffensive bipartisan outfit created to help states sort out their voter rolls has emerged as the latest partisan battlefield, with a half-dozen Republican-led states canceling their involvement with the organization this year, saying it has turned into a proving ground for left-wing ideas.
Ohio and Iowa withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center last week, and Florida, West Virginia and Missouri did so earlier this month. Alabama canceled its membership in January, and Louisiana withdrew last year.
Alaska’s election chief is also eyeing the exit, and legislators in Texas are pushing for an out, too.
“ERIC has chosen repeatedly to ignore demands to embrace reforms that would bolster confidence in its performance, encourage growth in its membership, and ensure not only its present stability but also its durability,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose wrote in his withdrawal letter, complaining about decisions he said have turned ERIC into an organization “that appears to favor only the interests of one political party.”
Some conservative experts cautioned against a total abandonment, saying whatever its flaws, ERIC serves a critical purpose.
“ERIC is a toolbox that states use to help clean voter rolls,” said J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. “The more states that leave ERIC, the less clean our voter rolls will be, until there’s an effective replacement that has been accepted by other states.”
The center is the latest victim of the deep rift that has emerged over how the U.S. conducts its elections, with competing views over what’s more important. Democrats generally argue that the paramount goal is to have as many people as possible voting. Republicans say it’s most important to ensure votes aren’t cast fraudulently.
ERIC, founded in 2012, tried to bridge the gap by helping states clean their voter rolls and also encourage voting.
Using data that member states provide, it produces reports of people who appear to be registered more than once and names of people who the federal government believes are deceased but are still on the rolls.
It also sends reports to the states identifying likely citizens who aren’t registered. As part of ERIC’s agreement, states must send a notice inviting them to register.
ERIC says it flagged 4.4 million unregistered potential voters for states in 2022 alone.
Through the first two months of 2023, it says, it has sniffed out nearly 400,000 people who may have moved from one state to another, more than 500,000 people who moved inside a state and more than 23,000 in-state duplicate entries. It also caught roughly 9,100 names of people who it said were dead.
States may also request reports on how many deceased people cast ballots and how many people on their rolls appear to have voted more than once within the state or voted in more than one state.
ERIC didn’t respond to an inquiry on how many states request those reports, but Mr. Adams said many of them do.
He should know. He is suing some of the states to get those reports, arguing that they are public information under federal law. ERIC’s contract with states prohibits releasing those reports. Mr. Adams said ERIC should drop that secrecy provision.
He said ERIC serves an important purpose overall.
“It’s the only functioning tool that states have to detect cross-state registration and voting, and that’s an incredibly valuable tool,” he said. “People who say, ‘Oh, we’ll replace it’ — OK, who?”
States that have withdrawn have cited a host of reasons.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said the requirement to send notices to unregistered but potentially eligible citizens amounts to harassment. He said registration should be voluntary.
Meanwhile, he said, states should be required to use the double-state voting data that can detect instances of fraud.
Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd said he wanted better protections for the voter information that ERIC can access.
Mr. LaRose, in Ohio, warned ERIC earlier this month that he would leave if he didn’t see improvements at a board meeting last week. The changes weren’t made, and he made good on his vow.
“I cannot justify the use of Ohio’s tax dollars for an organization that seems intent on rejecting meaningful accountability, publicly maligning my motives, and waging a relentless campaign of misinformation about this effort,” he said. “The conduct of ERIC and some of its hyperpartisan allies in recent weeks only heightens my suspicion and reinforces my decision.”
One recurring complaint of the withdrawing states was the role of David Becker, who helped found ERIC when he worked at the Pew Charitable Trusts and served as a nonvoting ex officio member of the board until he withdrew last week.
Mr. Becker said the objections to ERIC — and to his involvement — were excuses.
“All of the alleged complaints about ERIC were never brought up until propaganda sites started spreading lies about ERIC,” he said. “All of these deeply red and deeply blue states worked together without ever raising any of these concerns before.”
He said the states themselves are ERIC. They run the outfit, and Ohio even served as the chair last year.
Mr. Becker said withdrawing states have seen firsthand the benefits of ERIC. He pointed to prosecutions of double voting in Florida and Ohio, which he said developed out of information gleaned from ERIC reports.
As for his involvement, Mr. Becker said some of the withdrawing states have approvingly cited him in their own press releases in recent years. Several of those states have worked with him and his new outfit, the Center for Election Innovation & Research.
ERIC Executive Director Shane Hamlin has also weighed in this month by blasting “misinformation” about the organization.
He bristled at suggestions that his operation got funding from George Soros, an activist billionaire who has used his wealth to push liberal causes. Some news outlets have argued that ERIC was established with help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in turn has received money through Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
Mr. Hamlin didn’t address those start-up allegations but said ERIC’s “day-to-day operations” right now are funded through annual dues paid by the states. Dues currently run from $26,000 to $116,000, depending on the state’s population.
Mr. Hamlin also rejected worries about ERIC’s handling of voter information.
He said the outfit doesn’t have direct access to states’ voting data and works only off the files states send it. The data, he said, is stored at a secure location in the U.S.
ERIC had grown to more than 30 states, but the withdrawals leave it with 26 states and the District of Columbia. They still account for roughly half of the nation’s population.
Mr. Becker said states still in the consortium will catch fewer duplicate names because there are fewer states for comparison. Florida and other states that withdrew will see nothing.
“Their elections are going to be less secure without ERIC. There’s no question about this,” he said.
Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Ohio’s secretary of state, said officials never used ERIC to maintain voter lists anyway. Mr. Nichols said Ohio uses the Postal Service’s National Change of Address database and supplements with county boards of elections that mine their records to find names that should be removed.
“Ohio has the cleanest, most accurate registration database of arguably any state in the nation, but we didn’t do it with ERIC data,” Mr. Nichols said.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, said states have legitimate concerns that he is detailing in a forthcoming paper.
He said there is a need for some organization to do the work ERIC did to help states cleanse voter rolls, but he said reforms must be made.
“ERIC is doing a number of things wrong that need to be fixed,” he said. “Plan A is to keep trying to get those changes made. If that doesn’t happen, then they should start forming a separate organization to do what ERIC is supposed to do.”
Mr. von Spakovsky, now manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at The Heritage Foundation, warned that it would be a significant undertaking.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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