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How far-right conspiracy theories threw this voter integrity system into peril

When a far-right disinformation campaign targeted a little-known data tool that helps states update their voter files, people lit up election officials’ phone lines and inboxes.

The conspiracy theories accused the program, called Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, of trying to manipulate votes, and falsely painted a prominent Democratic donor as a shadowy financier pulling the organization’s strings.

“It kind of went viral,” said Michael Adams, Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state. “And so, suddenly, I’m getting all kinds of messages. The legislators I’m working with are getting all kinds of messages. And everyone’s panicking.”

The messages, Adams said, were “just Kookytown.”

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"I voted" stickers sit ready for voters to take after casting their ballot in the primary election at Precint C1 in the Olde Town Depot Building in Clinton, Miss., Tuesday, March 12, 2024.

“Evil Soros is always working ‘Against America,'” someone wrote in comments on a far-right website that falsely tied the organization to billionaire George Soros, a popular target of antisemitic conspiracy theories.

“This only reinforces the very likely claim that the 2020 election was rigged and the presidency stolen from Trump,” another said. “Time to hang traitors,” said another.

Then came former President Donald Trump on Truth Social: “All Republican Governors should immediately pull out of ERIC, the terrible Voter Registration System that ‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats.”

None of the information was true.

But in a chain reaction, nine states, all led by Republican secretaries of state, dropped out of the program. What was once a bipartisan tool that helped states fight voter fraud became a lightning rod of polarization that was less and less useful for the remaining states.

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A meltdown − and a pivotal election year

The meltdown happened during the first presidential election cycle since Trump and his allies denied that he lost the 2020 election – and peddled conspiracy theories about dead voters haunting the rolls and false tales of voter fraud in Democratic cities.

Now, states are forced to consider whether it is worth their money and time to continue using ERIC. And they’re struggling to recruit other states to join to make the program more effective.

“We want everybody in it,” Adams, the Kentucky secretary of state, said. “The more the merrier in terms of getting more information and our dues going lower. As many as we can add, it behooves us.”

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What is ERIC? Georgia says it’s the best

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's spokesperson said Georgia has the most secure elections in the country and won't leave ERIC.

The Electronic Registration Information Center is a consortium that started in 2012 when seven states banded together to improve how they remove people who have died or moved from their voter rolls, something federal law requires. Member states fund ERIC through dues.

“It is the most effective, cost-efficient list maintenance tool that anyone has ever come up with, bar none,” said Mike Hassinger, a spokesperson for the Georgia secretary of state’s office. “They can be sure that their vote is being cast accurately and securely, and that people who are not supposed to be voting in that particular election are not.”

The idea was to have the states send voter registration and driver’s license data to a staff of data experts, who would cross-reference the collected information with federal databases to learn which voters had died or moved. The staff would use security tools to guard the personal information involved in the analysis.

Keeping voter lists up to date helps prevent voter fraud because someone cannot, for example, vote using their registration in the state where they live and then vote a second time using an old registration in a state where they used to live. They also are less likely to be able to vote using a dead person’s registration.

There was another use for all the data they were crunching: Identifying citizens who were likely eligible to vote but weren’t registered. So ERIC required member states to reach out to those nonvoters, such as by sending a postcard, with instructions on how they could register to vote. Some Republican officials have more recently bridled at this outreach requirement.

ERIC’s membership peaked at 34 states and the District of Columbia. Through 2023, ERIC confirmed 12.5 million records from voters moving across state lines and almost 600,000 records for dead people.

Matt Heckel, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said in a statement that ERIC has helped remove more than 130,000 duplicate records and registrations for voters who had moved to another state.

“Despite the baseless conspiracy theories and disinformation being spread about a program that every member state previously touted as a bipartisan success story that promotes clean voter rolls, the department believes strongly in the value of the data we receive and remains committed to ERIC,” Heckel said.

Al Schmidt is the Secretary of the Commonwealth for the Pennsylvania Department Of State.

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Hassinger said Georgia pays about $89,000 a year to participate in ERIC, based on the volume of records the state uses. He called ERIC more accurate, more secure, and “more up-to-date than anything else that can be provided.”

He said his office gets emails and comments through social media making false claims about ERIC, in addition to phone calls and letters. But he’s not concerned.

“They’re universally incorrect,” Hassinger said. “They make assumptions that are not true, or they misunderstand how ERIC works. We’re not leaving ERIC.”

Five years after joining, Missouri is glad it left

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, now running for governor, told USA TODAY he led multiple states out of ERIC.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he has no regrets about leaving ERIC. The Republican was the third election official, after counterparts in Louisiana and Alabama, to announce his state’s departure. He brought Florida and West Virginia with him. Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and Texas followed.

While Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said he decided to leave over concerns “about potential questionable funding sources and that possibly partisan actors may have access to ERIC network data for political purposes,” Ashcroft said his reasons were more practical.

“The decision was made to essentially give Missouri and the Missouri taxpayers the middle finger, so I left,” he said. “I worked to try to make changes so that ERIC could be what it was supposed to be or what it was said to be.”

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Ashcroft, who is now a candidate for governor, led the state into ERIC in 2018, and said in a press release at the time that the program would “help affirm voters are eligible and registered in the right location, identify potential duplicate registrations and identify unregistered voters so we can help them get registered.”

Ashcroft declined to say who won the 2020 election. His letter announcing the state’s departure from ERIC included a list of operational concerns, but it also criticized an advisory member of ERIC’s board as “hyper-partisan.”

Cleta Mitchell, who participated in former President Donald Trump's phone call asking the Georgia Secretary of State to find votes, now runs the Election Integrity Network. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

That board member, David Becker, had been targeted in a misinformation campaign by a nonprofit run by Trump ally Cleta Mitchell.

Mitchell’s group, the Election Integrity Network, said Becker was part of “the Zuckerbucks election-manipulation scheme in 2020,” a conspiracy theory that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg rigged the election by donating to nonprofits that trained election offices on new technology and helped mobilize voters. Becker runs one of the groups Zuckerberg donated to.

Ashcroft said in an interview he was not motivated by false claims that ERIC was tied to Soros. He said his office had a process to clean voter rolls before it joined ERIC, and since leaving, uses an in-house technology staff. He’s not in a rush to join another database consortium and said that any program he joins would be nonpartisan.

“We are continuing to refine what we do internally, and it appears that it’s better than what we were getting from ERIC,” he said.

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Kentucky is considering leaving but asks New York and New Hampshire to join

Michael Adams, the Secretary of State for Kentucky, said he will decide in the coming months whether to try to exit the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.

Adams, the Kentucky secretary of state, said he’s giving it a few more months before he decides whether the state should leave ERIC. He still believes in its mission, but finds it less useful and more expensive since the recent exodus. 

People who move out of state tend to go to neighboring states, and Illinois is the only remaining state in ERIC that borders Kentucky. Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia left in the past two years, and Tennessee and Indiana never joined.

“My concern has been, ‘Are we going to lose access to the information that we need?’ and, ‘Are we going to pay more for the privilege of having lost the information?’” Adams said. “The more states that leave it, the less data we get, and the more we have to pay in dues.”

Adams pointed to an effort to clean voter rolls in 2021 when his staff removed more than 10,000 dead people. They lived in Florida at the time they died, he said, and his staff was able to take them off the rolls because Florida was part of ERIC. Florida left ERIC in 2023. Now he’s trying to work with the state directly to get the information he would’ve gotten through ERIC.

In the meantime, Adams said he signed on to letters urging New York and New Hampshire to join ERIC. Both states’ legislatures have considered bills to join the compact. Virginia’s legislature passed a bill to rejoin ERIC, but the governor vetoed it.

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David Scanlan, the Secretary of State in New Hampshire, does not support joining ERIC and testified against the state’s bill. A key committee declined to endorse it, making it unlikely the state will join anytime soon.  

Scanlan said he’s concerned about turning over the state’s driver’s license data and voter registration data to ERIC. “We lose control of that data once it’s in a third party’s hands,” he said. “I know they say they keep it secure and safe and everything, but we’re also living in a time of heightened concern.”

His other issue is an ERIC requirement that participating states reach out to eligible voters who aren’t registered. He said the New Hampshire legislature should be the one to require an outreach policy, not a third-party organization.  

“I know that ERIC has been politicized because there were, I think nine, Republican-controlled states that left the program, but that occurrence really has no bearing on my thought process,” Scanlan said.

Source link : https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/03/19/voter-fraud-conspiracy-eric-trump-soros-zuckerberg/72935989007/

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