To hear many Republicans tell it, American elections are awash in incompetence and fraud: shady precinct workers, dead people voting, unverifiable mail-in ballots and so on — and that was even before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Virtually all of the stories are exaggerated, misleading or simply false. And genuine voter fraud is extraordinarily rare. Still, Republican officials have for a long time rightly insisted on the importance of election integrity. So why are so many of them rejecting what was, until a few months ago, widely agreed to be the single best program for shoring up that integrity?
Over the past 18 months, eight Republican-led states (with more likely to follow) have resigned their membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan data clearinghouse that helps states keep their voter rolls accurate and up-to-date.
Before we get into the groundless conspiracy theories that led to this mass exodus, consider the sheer logistical challenge of maintaining voter rolls in a country of more than 330 million people. Americans have a tendency to move, within a state or between states, often forgetting to update their voter registration along the way. Sooner or later, they die. The result is that the rolls of many states are littered with errors: People who are unintentionally registered in more than one place or who remain on the books after they’ve departed a state or this world. In 2012 as many as one in eight voter registrations nationwide was invalid or highly inaccurate, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped form ERIC that year as part of its data-based approach to public policy debates.
Because of our decentralized election system, the responsibility to sort out this mess falls to the states. Federal and state laws require states to maintain accurate voter rolls, but the states have no established way to communicate and coordinate with one another. The existence of searchable voter data itself is relatively new: As recently as 2000, only seven states had computerized statewide voter databases.
In short, it’s easy to proclaim that free, fair and well-run elections are the lifeblood of democracy; it’s a lot harder to put that ideal into practice. One early effort, like the Interstate Crosscheck program, failed miserably because of inadequate data analysis and poor security practices. ERIC has succeeded by devoting the time, money and expertise necessary to build a comprehensive, secure and useful database of voter information. That information — drawn from voter rolls, D.M.V. records, Social Security death records and change-of-address data — gets analyzed, matched and compiled into reports that are provided to the states to help them clean up their rolls.
The work has paid off: Through April 2023, ERIC has identified nearly 12 million voters who moved across state lines, more than 24 million whose in-state registrations required updates, more than 1 million in-state duplicates and nearly 600,000 dead people who had not been removed from the rolls. In addition, ERIC requires that member states reach out to eligible but unregistered voters, although it is difficult to determine just how many new voters have signed up as a result.
ERIC did all of this in a true example of bipartisanship. “It’s a place where red and blue states were able to come together, have this really boring but really effective data system for keeping the right people on the rolls and removing the wrong people from the rolls,” said Danielle Lang, the senior director of the voting-rights program at the Campaign Legal Center.
The reviews, especially from Republicans, were glowing. When Florida joined ERIC in 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis said it was “the right thing to do for our state, as it will ensure our voter rolls are up-to-date and it will increase voter participation in our elections.” This year, Iowa’s Republican secretary of state called ERIC a “godsend”; his counterpart in Ohio said it was “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have.” By 2022, 31 states and the District of Columbia had signed up to pay the organization’s $25,000 membership fee. (States also pay annual dues based on their voting-age population.)
Given the level of baseless hysteria surrounding voting, maybe it was too much to expect it all to last. In January 2022, the extreme right-wing website Gateway Pundit published a series of articles accusing ERIC of being “essentially a left-wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll cleanup.” It claimed that the program was funded by George Soros — eternally the dark mastermind of every liberal corruption in the right-wing mind-set — and described one of its founders, David Becker, as a “hard-core leftist.” (Mr. Soros has given money to Pew but not to ERIC, not that it really matters.) Gateway Pundit also strongly suggested, without the slightest proof, that ERIC was somehow connected to Democratic Party databases.
None of this should have been too surprising for a website that continually traffics in the most outlandish election conspiracies and is every so often labeled false or “pants on fire” by fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact.
But the misinformation worked. One week later, Louisiana dropped out of the program and didn’t give a clear reason.
Other states, all Republican-led, began to follow, each with dubious rationales. Some said they didn’t like being required to spend money to reach out to unregistered voters, who they believed (wrongly) are more likely to vote for Democrats. Others cited the Soros conspiracy theory. Florida officials cited undefined “partisan tendencies” and concerns about data security (though ERIC has never had a data breach). The basic theme of all the complaints was distilled in a social-media post by Donald Trump, who claimed in March that ERIC “pumps the rolls” for Democrats.
If so, it’s doing a poor job, Mr. Becker pointed out. “I hate to tell Democrats this, but ERIC is not delivering them elections,” he said. “Florida joined just before 2020 and then had the greatest Republican rout in history.”
Mr. Becker, who served as a nonvoting member of ERIC’s board until his term expired this year, flagged a deeper flaw in the departing states’ reasoning: They control ERIC, along with the other member states. All the states were fully aware of the terms and costs of the agreement when they joined. If they want to change the way ERIC functions, it’s entirely within their power to offer a proposal and hold a vote, as they have done many times.
There is, of course, a far simpler explanation for the Republican desertion of ERIC: politics. Many of the officials who have pulled their states out of ERIC are running for higher office, and that means appealing to the Republican base, which is still addled by the toxic fumes of Mr. Trump’s “stop the steal” movement. (Cleta Mitchell, an election lawyer who was central to Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss, has been a leading advocate of the ERIC exodus.) Under the persistent influence of the former president, most Republican voters have been conditioned to view all electoral outcomes that don’t go their way as de facto illegitimate.
Republicans who are not running for higher office, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble defending ERIC. “Making policy choices based on misinformation is the worst,” said Gabe Sterling, a top election official in Georgia, which joined ERIC in 2019 and is happy to stick with it. “We’re already under pressure, but our calculus is what’s best for the voters of Georgia, because that’s our job.”
The problem is that, as the only game in town, ERIC works best when more states join. States that have resigned no longer have a good way to analyze or share their voter data, and states that remain will receive less useful reports (and will pay more money) because the pool of participants is smaller. In short, everyone loses.
“The very actors who said they care about list maintenance the most are now abandoning the only tool they had available,” said Ms. Lang. “It seems like the goal is to create chaos — to lead to bloated rolls so they can point at them and say, ‘Look at the problem we have,’ even though it’s a problem entirely of their own making.”
That would seem to be a paradox, but it turns out it’s the whole point.
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