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The truth about ERIC, the voter roll program targeted by extremists

“This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access.”

If it weren’t for a report Arizona officials received for the first time in December, election officials might not have realized that around 200,000 voters had potentially moved to another state.

In Alabama, the same type of reports, sent over a six-year period, clued officials into the need to check whether 222,000 voters had moved somewhere else.

After getting the reports, county officials in these states — and dozens of others that also receive them — began verifying the information and taking ineligible voters off the rolls. It’s the type of voter roll cleanup that election integrity advocates on both sides of the aisle want — the left wants accurate rolls so that election funding goes to the right places, and the right wants to tackle voter roll bloat it sees as enabling potential fraud.

But the program that sent the reports, Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, recently came under attack from far-right media, leading to a pressure campaign to try to convince states to disenroll.

“What they were saying was not true,’’ John Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, said in an interview with Votebeat last week. “It’s one thing to have their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

The irony of the debate is that the same critics attacking ERIC ⁠— one of the best tools states have for checking for potential voter fraud across state lines ⁠— continue to baselessly assert that voter fraud, in part caused by inaccurate voter rolls, caused former President Donald Trump to lose the 2020 election.

In January, a provocative right-wing website, Gateway Pundit, published a series of blog posts with line after line of inaccurate or misleading information. The posts asserted that ERIC is actually a liberal ploy funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, intended to get more Democrats registered to vote. Gateway Pundit also suggested the program could allow private voter data to be released.

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The episode shows how the lack of public understanding about how local election officials ensure voter rolls are accurate, and the role ERIC plays in this work, created an opening for disinformation to severely threaten election integrity. 

Merrill said he was disappointed in the phone calls, emails and social media messages about ERIC that flowed into his office in the wake of the inaccurate Gateway Pundit pieces. 

He immediately set about correcting the record, releasing statements stressing that: ERIC is one of the best tools that Alabama and other enrolled states have to check across state lines for duplicate voter registrations, inaccurate registrations and deceased voters, making it an important measure for election integrity. It is funded by states that voluntarily enroll — not by Soros.

Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C. — which are represented by an almost even split of Democratic or Republican election officials  —  trust its accuracy and security protocols. 

Merrill said if he and many other Republican state leaders hadn’t stood up to the pressure, other officials hoping to score political points “may have buckled and said we are going to separate ourselves because we would rather not fight.” The damage to the program’s strength, he believes, could have been much worse.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the office of Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin told Votebeat in February that the state’s decision to put the program on hold had “nothing to do with” the Gateway Pundit posts, but that “numerous” experts had concerns with “election stuff.” 

What election stuff? Ardoin’s office said they’re trying to get to the bottom of some questions about “how the data moves and how it functions within their space,” but wouldn’t give more detail.

Here’s the truth about how ERIC works, and why it’s trusted by most states.

ERIC is not funded by George Soros, and it’s not a Democratic venture

ERIC began in 2012 as a coalition of seven states  — Colorado, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, led by Republican chief election officials, and Delaware, Maryland, and Nevada, led by Democratic chief election officials, according to Shane Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director.

ERIC’s mission is improving the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increasing access to voter registration for all eligible voters.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts provided the start-up funding for the program, Hamlin said, and ERIC subsequently switched to a member-funded model. New states pay $25,000 to join, and each state also pays annual dues varying from $15,000 to $74,000, depending on the size of the state. That money pays for an annual $1 million budget.

The Gateway Pundit story incorrectly claims that the program’s start-up money came from liberal billionaire George Soros. To make that claim, it highlights a one-time $500,000 contribution from Soros’ Open Society Foundations to Pew for voting rights work. Pew is a national nonpartisan nonprofit that receives grants of more than $300 million annually.

While Pew provided the start-up money for the ERIC program, it has not given any money to the program since then other than a $288,000 grant for technology upgrades in 2019. Soros has never given money directly to ERIC, according to Hamlin.

Merrill, the Alabama Republican, said that someone has to be “so extreme on their beliefs on the right” to think that any potential Soros involvement means the program shouldn’t be trusted.   

There’s no national database of voters, so ERIC tries to fill the gaps

ERIC attempts to address the challenges created by a quirk of the American election system: There’s no national database of voters.

That’s because in the U.S., elections are regulated by the states rather than a central federal authority. That means there’s no comprehensive way to ensure that a voter is only registered in one state, and only voting once in a particular election.

ERIC was created to give states a way to compare voter data across state lines.

Member states must provide their full state voter rolls at least every 60 days, including records from a state identification or licensing agency, typically the motor vehicle department. That means ERIC is able to search for matches by using not just the voters’ name and date of birth, which could be shared by multiple people, but 11 separate pieces of identifying information. ERIC also collects national Social Security death records.

The sheer amount of data collected on each individual voter addresses a weakness that plagued a previous program, known as the interstate Crosscheck System and run by Kansas, which didn’t have as much data. That meant it was thus more likely to inaccurately flag voters who shared, say, the same name and birthdate, but were actually different people.

The accuracy of the program is lauded by voting rights groups and Democratic leaders, who have long been concerned about the tendency for Republican-led states to inaccurately remove eligible voters from the rolls based on weak matches, citing the need to prevent voter fraud.

ERIC’s database can flag, say, a Louisiana voter who moves to Texas but doesn’t cancel their voter registration in Louisiana — as many don’t. Or, a Louisiana voter who dies in Texas, which might not be caught in the death records in Louisiana. 

It’s not illegal to be registered in more than one state as long as the voter only casts one ballot in the proper jurisdiction. Trump’s allies have cited worries about duplicate registrations leading to the improper casting of multiple ballots — something theoretically possible, but rare.

(The Washington Post reported last week that Trump’s former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was simultaneously registered in three states, though there’s no evidence he voted more than once.)

ERIC requires participating states to act on what they find

The program is only powerful if states actually use the data.

Participating states must ask for data on at least one topic, such as out-of-state movers, at least once per year. Then, under the rules, they must use the information to update their voter rolls. 

ERIC requires states to certify they have attempted to clean the rolls using the data provided, Hamlin said. For example, if they request data on voter moves, that means trying to contact at least 95% of voters identified by ERIC as potentially having moved. 

Here’s what that looked like when Arizona received the report in December: The state received data on about 200,000 voters who had potentially moved out-of-state. Receiving that triggered a months-long process to confirm the information and years-long waiting period before ineligible voters could be removed from the rolls.

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After receiving the report, state officials sent each county the list of flagged voters. The counties then sent each voter a mailing that served as a first notice. If it came back as undeliverable, the county sent a second notice and waited to see if the voter responded within 35 days. If not, the voter was placed on the “inactive voter” list — but could still cast a ballot. 

If the voter remains inactive, by not voting or otherwise updating their information, for two consecutive general elections, the county can then remove the voter from the list. 

Is there a voter registration component of ERIC, as well?

While ERIC is known for its ability to identify potentially ineligible or fraudulent voters, the Gateway Pundit posts focused on another part of the program, which requires ERIC to send participating states information about eligible voters who are not yet registered to vote. 

The posts’ implication: The program is partisan, aimed at registering more Democratic voters.

Hamlin, who was involved in the creation of the program back when he was co-director of elections in one of ERIC’s original member states, Washington, said the insinuation is untrue. 

What the member states did want, he said, was to create a balanced system: One that helped prevent fraud and provided an efficient way to register eligible citizens.

That means the lists include all eligible voters, not just Democrats. ERIC doesn’t even collect information about newly eligible voters’ party affiliation, Hamlin said.

“Registering eligible new voters shouldn’t be a partisan thing,” Hamlin said. “It’s about expanding participation in the process.”

Strict security rules for voter data transfers

Hamlin said voters shouldn’t be worried that their information, which is being sent back and forth between the organization and states, will leak out. 

ERIC has protocols to ensure that data is secure, he said, and those protocols are reviewed independently by outside entities that audit the system.

“If we don’t protect the data, then we don’t get the data, and we fail to exist,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin said ERIC has never had a data or security breach.

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ERIC does not release voter data with anyone outside its member states, other than sharing limited data for the purposes of authorized research.* Voter data is not shared by anyone outside member states, and voter reports can’t be released to the public. Member states use encryption to send data to ERIC via a secure file share system.

Sam Derheimer, who was on the Pew election initiatives team that created ERIC, said that it was a priority from day one to keep voter data secure as it was transferred to and from the states, as well as while it was in ERIC’s database. State officials told the Pew team at the time that their states would not participate if there was a way that private voter data could be compromised, Derheimer said.

“States take the security and privacy of their voters very seriously,” he said. “They wouldn’t risk that privacy in any system.”

In Arizona, Kori Lorick, the state’s elections director, stressed that “everything within the system is secure.”

State officials say ERIC is best way to cross-check voter data across state lines

The power of ERIC comes from the sheer number of states participating. The fewer states, the less voter data available to cross-check between them, making the program less useful to the states that remain. 

Besides Louisiana, Hamlin said, no other states have signaled plans to suspend or leave the program. In the wake of the Gateway Pundit posts, ERIC has gotten questions from government officials, and put out an FAQ that addressed many of them.

Each state decides how it wants to use the program. Some request data more frequently, some less often. 

“ERIC is the best tool that currently exists to identify voter participation in multiple states, identify dual registration in multiple states, and enhance voter rolls,” Merrill said.

Lorick, in Arizona, called the program “extremely helpful,” featuring data that incorporates other sources, such as death records from the Social Security Administration.

Hamlin said the program has been continuously growing since it started a decade ago, and it’s always been roughly evenly supported by Republican and Democratic states. So he isn’t too worried about its future.

“When you look at the map, red states, blue states and purple states all support it.”

“Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.”

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ERIC attempts to address the challenges created by a quirk of the American election system: There’s no national database of voters.