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Some Republican-led states are struggling to develop new ways to adequately update their voter rolls after withdrawing from a popular cross-state voter roll cleaning program that came under attack by far-right election activists, according to new documents and internal emails reviewed by Votebeat.
Virginia paid $29,000 in September to regain access to just a sliver of the data they used to obtain via the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. Alabama and Missouri officials took months to come up with new plans for cleaning voter rolls, landing on plans that are less rigorous than ERIC. And a new system some states are considering to help with voter roll cleanup had its server attacked and temporarily brought down, according to documents obtained by left-leaning watchdog group American Oversight and exclusively shared with Votebeat.
The documents also show that senior advisors to secretaries of state in Missouri and Texas recognized that lies were being spread about ERIC, and tried to stop their states from withdrawing from what they saw as a valuable program. In addition, officials in some states such as Ohio had pushed unsuccessfully for changes to ERIC that could have kept their states from withdrawing.*
“As you know, I really worked as hard as I possibly could to avoid this,” Amanda Grandjean, then the senior advisor to the Ohio secretary of state, wrote in an email to ERIC executive director Shane Hamlin after Ohio withdrew from the program in March.
ERIC is a powerful tool for states to share voter information with other states, allowing them to remove duplicate or dead voters from their rolls. It has been successful mainly because of the sheer volume of the data it collects, which allows it to accurately match voter data on a large scale, and because it has worked through the complications involved in cross-referencing the different data sets and storing and transmitting the data securely.
Before the exodus of members began in early 2022, more than half of U.S. states were participating, and membership was virtually balanced between Republican- and Democratic-led states.
Clean voter rolls help ensure that eligible voters only cast one ballot, and help counties keep mail voting costs down by eliminating ineligible voters from the rolls. As states leave ERIC, not only do they lose access to the collective’s valuable data themselves, their withdrawal means the remaining states have less data with which to clean their own rolls. Michael Morse, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who researches voter roll maintenance, said this may not only undermine confidence in elections, but also could cause problems for voters at the polls whose addresses may not be up-to-date after they move, sometimes requiring them to cast a provisional ballot.
“Inaccurate rolls to me are an integrity problem,” Morse said. “But, they are also an access problem.”
The nine Republican states that have left since 2022 can’t replicate this type of system, and are instead taking a piecemeal approach that leaves them contending with a series of challenges, the documents show. For example, a working group involving several states led by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office wrestled this spring with the legality and security of data-sharing across state lines, according to emails among state officials.
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In the margins of a draft agreement, an official noted they weren’t sure whether some states permitted confidential voter data to be shared in the way proposed. “Do other states’ laws allow this?” the comment read.
Hamlin, the executive director of ERIC, told Votebeat that its founding states worked for more than two years to build ERIC and “ensure what we do and how we do it complies with state and federal laws,” he said in a statement. “We also made sure data privacy and security were built into our processes and practices from the beginning.”
So far, instead of a multi-state agreement, states have instead signed individual agreements with other states.
West Virginia, for example, has signed agreements with Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee — states likely to have residents moving between them and West Virginia. West Virginia is not attempting to replace ERIC, but primarily trying to identify potentially illegal voting activity across state lines, said Donald Kersey, general counsel for the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.
Kersey said in an email that it hasn’t been complicated.
“It naturally required states to work with each other to find time to meet and review the [memorandums of understanding], but it has been no more complicated than other MOUs our office works on with other entities or state agencies,” he wrote. Kersey said the creation of a multi-state agreement wasn’t the sole mission of the Ohio-led working group, instead describing it as “part of the discussion,” and said the state is also using other sources of data to clean its voter rolls as needed.
States were advised of ERIC’s value
The exodus from ERIC began after the far-right website The Gateway Pundit published articles in January 2022 laden with false information about the program: That it had been funded by left-wing financier George Soros and that it was run by virulent partisans who sought to pad voter rolls with liberal voters.
None of that was true, and prior to the onslaught of coverage the program was considered apolitical: A cross-partisan team of officials from member states run the program, and it’s funded out of those states’ budgets. Along with attempting to match duplicate voters across state lines, the states use the data they receive from ERIC to inform new residents of their state that they are eligible to vote. The dual purpose of the program was what initially attracted both Democratic- and Republican-led states.
When the Gateway Pundit’s articles were published, election offices across the country began to get emails from constituents demanding they leave the program. Soon, Republican secretaries of state who had long been proponents of ERIC in the past changed their tune.
Documents show that their top advisors knew that the Gateway Pundit stories were false.
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The day after the first article was published on Gateway Pundit’s site, ERIC’s executive director emailed officials in ERIC member states attempting to debunk it.
“I appreciate you sharing this and will advise the Secretary,” Trish Vincent, chief of staff for Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, wrote back to Hamlin. “He has gotten some inquiries related to this horrible and misleading article.”
But in early March 2023, Ashcroft withdrew Missouri from ERIC, making it the third state to leave the program after Louisiana and Alabama. Florida, West Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, and Virginia left next.
Texas was the most recent. There, too, internal emails from the Secretary of State’s Office show that officials there knew that leaving ERIC would be costly and inefficient.
When a chief of staff for a North Texas Republican state lawmaker reached out to Sam Taylor, the assistant secretary of state for communications for Secretary of State Jane Nelson, in January asking him for information about ERIC, Taylor responded with a long email explaining the importance of the program.
Taylor explained that from June to December 2022 alone, ERIC provided the office with information that led to more than 200,000 deceased or duplicate voter records being flagged for county voter registrars to investigate. He also corrected some of the inaccuracies in the Gateway Pundit story, explaining, for example, that ERIC isn’t funded by Soros.
Taylor called ERIC an “important election integrity tool,” and said without it, counties wouldn’t be able to remove certain voters from the rolls, “creating the opportunity for criminals to commit fraud in the name of a deceased person or a person who no longer lives in Texas but is still registered here.”
Nonetheless, Texas left ERIC in July.
Taylor, who no longer works for the secretary of state, told Votebeat in a text message Monday that, while ERIC was the best tool states had for cross-state voter roll cleanup, the program became less effective due to the multi-state exodus.
“And whatever new system takes its place will likely face similar scrutiny surrounding transparency, accuracy, and efficacy in helping keep voter rolls clean and up-to-date,” he said.
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Some states that withdrew cited financial concerns. States spent between $37,000 and $174,000 for annual membership for the most recent fiscal year, depending on their size. But the mailings required by the program cost states as well, and the membership fees are growing as states back out of the program and fewer remain to share the burden.
But any other system may be expensive, too. In a fiscal note obtained by American Oversight for the legislation that allowed Texas to withdraw from the program, the Texas’ Secretary of State’s Office estimated that any cost savings the state would see from leaving ERIC, which cost the state $1.5 million every two years, would be “offset by the costs of participating in a different program or in developing a new program.”
Christina Adkins, elections director for the Secretary of State’s Office, estimated the office would continue to need the $1.5 million every two years for any new system it used to clean voter rolls.
Virginia has already found that getting the data that ERIC provided is costly.
In August, the state paid $3,445 just to get access to the national database that uses Social Security numbers to report deaths, the Limited Access Death Master File, and the next month the state paid $28,960 for a private company to match the files to the Virginia voter roll, one of the many services ERIC previously provided, according to receipts obtained by American Oversight. Membership to ERIC cost Virginia about $40,000 in annual dues for 2019-2020, according to a state document. The dues have since risen, but more recent data wasn’t immediately available.
States left ERIC without a replacement plan
The documents show that, in many cases, states that left ERIC didn’t have a long-term plan to replace it. At least some also lacked short-term plans for keeping voter rolls up-to-date in the meantime.
In Alabama, for example, Secretary of State Wes Allen ran his 2022 campaign for the office on a platform of removing the state from ERIC. He announced the state’s exit from ERIC immediately after taking office in January. Yet two months later, the state’s elections director was just starting to figure out how to replace it.
On March 27, Jeff Elrod sent an email to an official with the National Association of State Election Directors asking for contact information for the best person at the U.S. Postal Service to get change-of-address data for voter roll maintenance, something ERIC had provided the state.
Ashcroft withdrew Missouri from ERIC in March, though it appears the state’s counties received no formal guidance for months as to how they should now perform voter roll list maintenance without it. On June 7, the elections director of Saint Louis County wrote indicating he’d received the new guide, and asking for an electronic version of it to use for staff training.
Meanwhile, Missouri has joined other states who have departed ERIC in forming a working group to establish a new way to share voter data across state lines. As of this spring, the group was wrestling with both the legal and practical challenges around obtaining and sharing necessary data, and trading tips on possible sources for it while attempting to hammer out a draft template for agreements between states, a June email from Grandjean in Ohio to officials in the group shows.
In addition to questions about whether laws in all the states would allow confidential voter information to be shared and how, working group members also weren’t sure how often the states could commit to sharing data with each other. A draft agreement circulating at the time suggested every six months, with a note that said “Discuss.” That’s much less frequent than ERIC, which requires data sharing at least every 60 days, though it’s up to individual states how often they use the available data to update voter rolls.
Grandjean also touched on the cybersecurity questions around how data would be shared.
“We also decided that there needs to be a dedicated group of CISOs/cybersecurity professionals from our offices connected via email to discuss the secure data sharing requirements” she wrote, updating the group about a June meeting.
Lawmakers and advocates have suggested some private vendors as replacements for ERIC, but those have also faced security challenges: One private vendor marketing itself as a voter roll cleanup solution across state lines, EagleAI, faced a cyberattack in October, according to the documents.
Columbia County in Georgia recently signed up to use the system. In October, EagleAI CEO John “Rick” Richards Jr. responded to concerns from the county, including a claim that the EagleAI system had been hacked.
On Oct. 4, Richards confirmed via email that “several EagleAI network servers became inoperative,” adding that “investigation indicated it was possibly due to an attack on the Windows server software.”
In an email to Votebeat, he denied that the event — which he characterized as a “denial of service attack” — put any voter data at risk.
“Denial of service attacks happen all the time, hundreds and even thousands of times a day,” Richards wrote. “There was no breech[sic] of the EagleAI software.”
Morse said it’s not surprising to him that states are laboring to find substitutes for ERIC. ERIC took a long time to create, he said, and reflects a careful design that takes into consideration state and federal laws, as well as secure and accurate sharing of private data.
“The states withdrawing from ERIC cannot just easily stand up a copycat,” he said. “I don’t expect anyone to stand up a copycat. What I expect is for people to stand up a cheap imitation that will ultimately be worse.”
Correction, Dec. 13, 2023: This story has been updated to correctly reflect the context of the email Amanda Grandjean, then the senior advisor to the Ohio secretary of state, sent to ERIC executive director Shane Hamlin after Ohio withdrew from the program. After this article published, Grandjean told Votebeat the email, which said, “As you know, I really worked as hard as I possibly could to avoid this,” referenced her advocacy for changes to ERIC’s requirements that might have prevented Ohio’s withdrawal. The email did not directly acknowledge that lies were being spread about ERIC.
Votebeat journalists Natalia Contreras, Carrie Levine, and Carter Walker contributed to this report.
Jen Fifield is a reporter for Votebeat based in Arizona. Contact Jen at email@example.com.