How Election Deniers Are Making Voter Fraud Easier
A cloud of misinformation has led a half-dozen states to abandon the most powerful tool available to combat voter fraud across state lines.
In February, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose held a news conference in which he discussed ways the state was making elections more transparent and secure. One thing that’s indispensable, he suggested, was ERIC, or the Electronic Registration Information Center, a data-sharing effort among states. “It is one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have,” LaRose said. “It’s a tool that has provided great benefit for us, and we’re going to continue to use it.”
Well, that was then. On March 17, LaRose announced Ohio was quitting ERIC. It’s among a half-dozen Republican-controlled states that have left this year, including five just this month. As a result, election officials are worried that one of the most effective sources of voter information available to states — and a rare bipartisan success story over the past decade — has been undermined.
“It’s going to leave you in a position of not having a tool you can use to prevent voter fraud,” says John Merrill, a Republican who served as Alabama’s secretary of state until January. “It’s going to be a major concern for states that are concerned with election integrity.”
ERIC is in trouble because of a series of complaints lodged by conservatives who claim it’s tilted toward Democrats. Last year, the Gateway Pundit, a right-wing site, published a series of posts claiming that ERIC received funding from liberal billionaire George Soros and was sharing voter information with groups on the left. “They seem to be partnering with other 501(c)3s that seem to have a left-wing agenda,” says Matt Braynard, who directs Look Ahead America, a conservative group that combats election fraud.
Merrill says all of the allegations that have been lodged against ERIC are false. Gateway Pundit is known for pushing conspiracy theories (a pair of Georgia election workers are suing the site for defamation). Soros gave money to The Pew Charitable Trusts, but it was not used to fund the technical assistance Pew offered more than a decade ago in helping to set up ERIC in the first place. “No information is shared with anyone other than those [participating] states,” Merrill says.
Merrill was part of a group of secretaries of state who wanted to audit ERIC, to address some of the concerns. That didn’t happen in time to stop the exodus of red states. ERIC is now a prime target for conservatives. “All Republican Governors should immediately pull out of ERIC, the terrible Voter Registration System that ‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up,” former President Donald Trump posted earlier this month. “It is a fools game for Republicans.”
ERIC — or something like ERIC — serves a real need, says Braynard, a former Trump campaign official. Its purpose — allowing states to compare information about their voter rolls — is absolutely essential, he says. But he complains that aside from the accusations of bias, it’s gotten too expensive and burdensome for states. A system such as ERIC should be federally mandated, he suggests.
Given the tension that now exists, however, he’s not confident that red and blue states will be able to continue collaborating on such efforts. “I think there is a red-blue divide in the country,” Braynard says, “where you end up with two different systems.”
How ERIC Works
ERIC was started in 2012 by a bipartisan group of seven states. Over time, its ranks grew to 30. The basic idea is pretty simple. Participating states send in their full voter rolls every 60 days, along with identification records offering information about voters such as their addresses and partial Social Security numbers. Other states can use this information, for example, to find out whether people are illegally voting in multiple states.
ERIC also sends information to states about eligible citizens who are not registered. Its critics say this is a distraction at best; at worst, they claim it’s an effort to pad the rolls with Democrats. They also say that it's too expensive. It costs a state $25,000 to join and then annual fees range from $15,000 to $74,000, depending on population size.
“We do know, again, that the people running ERIC don’t share our worldview,” said Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, who is sponsoring a bill to pull Texas out of ERIC, according to a recording obtained by the Texas Tribune.
On March 6, officials in Pinellas County, Fla., arrested a man on charges that he had voted in both Florida and Virginia in 2020. That information, officials said, came from ERIC. But Florida was still one of three states to leave ERIC that day. “The states that are leaving ERIC are going to see much less accurate voter lists, more people who have moved out of their states, less information on people who have committed double voting and longer lines, because of the higher rate of provisional ballots,” says David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, which consults with election officials.
When he worked at Pew, Becker helped create ERIC. That became one of the bill of complaints against the group, because Becker has been an active critic of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. Recognizing that he’d become a distraction, if not a target, Becker gave up his seat on the ERIC board on March 14. It wasn’t enough to stop the stampede.
No Ready Substitute
Not all red states are leaving ERIC. “States claim they want to combat illegal voting & clean voter rolls — but then leave the best & only group capable of detecting double voting across state lines, @ericstates_info,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, tweeted earlier this month. “Reacting to disinformation they’ve hurt their own state & others while undermining voter confidence.”
Becker says the disinformation campaign is deliberate, that some people waving the banner of election security in fact want elections to be less secure, so they can continue to yell and scream that they’re being stolen. “There’s an ecosystem of grifters whose livelihood depends on the donations of people who are disappointed by the outcome of elections,” he says. “People are getting rich off of this.”
A couple of prominent election deniers are now talking about setting up their own voter databases — Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, and Mark Finchem, the GOP nominee last year for Arizona secretary of state. If they do get their efforts off the ground, it’s safe to say that Democrats won’t be rushing to join. Back in 2005, Kansas started a voter database sharing initiative called Interstate Crosscheck. Criticized by Democrats as a tool for targeting voters for arrest and riddled with security problems, the program officially shut down in 2019.
Although lots of information about voters is publicly available through various databases, only states themselves are able to cobble together a fairly complete picture. And that takes lot of states. It’s like social media. A platform might work well in theory, but it’s only going to be useful if lots of people participate. “It takes two to tango,” as Braynard says.
Sharing information across states is obviously more effective when more states are participating. Over the past decade, ERIC has been able to bring together red states such as Texas and blue states such as Illinois to work toward a common goal of keeping voter rolls accurate and identify areas where voter fraud could happen. That genie has now slipped out of the bottle. There’s increasing pressure on remaining red states to hop on the bandwagon and get out of ERIC.
In politics, it’s always easier to get people motivated against something than to defend it, says Merrill, the former Alabama secretary of state. “Most people won’t give you the time to properly explain what’s occurred here and why it’s so valuable,” he says. “You just tell people that George Soros funded it or was part of it, and they’re done with it.”