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How a right-wing website’s false report figured in Louisiana’s departure from ERIC

Text messages show what a spokesman denied: a link between the state’s decision and allegations from the Gateway Pundit.

Three people stand side by side behind a podium smiling for a photo with the state of Louisiana seal in the background.
Former Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, center. (Image courtesy of the Former Secretary of State in Louisiana Kyle Ardoin)

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Hi, y’all,

If you’ve been a longtime newsletter reader, you might remember a four-part series in early 2022, after Republican-led states — starting with Louisiana — began agitating against a multistate coalition dedicated to cleaning and updating voter rolls.

It all started when right-wing website Gateway Pundit falsely reported that the coalition — the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC — was inflating voter rolls to benefit Democrats.

Louisiana suspended its participation in ERIC in January 2022, and later became the first of several Republican-led states to withdraw altogether. At the time, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s spokesperson told me that the decision to quit the program was in no way related to the Gateway Pundit allegations. This seemed implausible at the time, but documents recently shared with us by the nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog American Oversight now show more clearly that what the spokesperson said wasn’t true.

First, let’s rewind the tape. Here is what I wrote about my February 2022 conversation with that spokesperson for this newsletter:

In late January, Louisiana suspended its participation in a multi-state voter-roll-matching program known as ERIC, one week after rightwing conspiracy site Gateway Pundit baselessly accused ERIC of being “a left-wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up.” But if you ask Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s office, staff will tell you the decision had “nothing to do with” Gateway Pundit. What did the secretary base his decision on? The staff won’t say.

“We’re not having that dialogue,” said spokesman John Tobler, who said “numerous” experts had expressed concerns over “election stuff.” Who? “I am not at liberty to disclose that,” he said. What concerns? “We’re trying to get to the bottom of a major source of questions within the service provider” about “how the data moves and how it functions within their space,” said Tobler. What does that mean? Tobler won’t say, but he wants everyone to know “it’s not based on a conspiracy theory.

The Gateway Pundit published its first article — which falsely asserted that ERIC was funded by liberal financier George Soros — on Jan. 21, 2022. That same day, the American Oversight Records show, Ardoin texted Tobler just before 9 p.m.: “I think we suspend our membership in ERIC until we can investigate what they are doing with our data,” he wrote. “I’m fine with that,” Tobler responded.

A screen shot of a text thread between two people.
A 2022 text message exchange between Louisiana's then-Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and spokesman John Tobler. (Image courtesy of American Oversight)

Tobler then texted John McGehe, a public information officer in the secretary of state’s office: “Will you post this across all platforms? Also, call me when you get moving around in the AM about a press release.” He included a link to the Gateway Pundit article before adding that the state would be going a step further: “Apparently, we will be withdrawing from ERIC.”

A screen shot of a text thread between two people.
A text message exchange between Tobler and John McGehe, a public information officer in the secretary of state’s office. (Image courtesy of American Oversight)

A few days later, after Louisiana announced its separation from ERIC in a press release, Ardoin texted Tolber and another staffer to ask which media outlets had reported the announcement. Tobler responded with a short list that included Gateway Pundit.

“What did the Gateway Pundit say?” Ardoin asked. “I am sure they went all drama on it.”

Ardoin was right. In its article announcing Louisiana’s withdrawal, which Tobler pasted into the exchange, Gateway Pundit turned up the drama as high as possible. “Today the state of Louisiana said no more — they will stop using this scandalous system,” it read.

A screen shot of a text thread between two people.
Another exchange between Ardoin and Tobler. (Image courtesy of American Oversight)


Other media outlets were also unable to get straightforward, honest responses about what prompted Louisiana’s exit from ERIC.

A request from Stateline in March 2023 shows a reporter was interested in speaking to Ardoin or another staff member in the office about “why some Republican secretaries of state have decided to withdraw their states from the cooperative, and what this means for voter registration list maintenance moving forward.”

Tobler declined to comment. “Due to confidentiality provisions in the ERIC agreement that ERIC insists survive Louisiana’s membership in the compact,” he responded, “we will not be providing further comment.”

A screen grab of an email.
Tobler's email response to a reporter's question about states withdrawing from ERIC. (Image courtesy of American Oversight)

I don’t know what Tobler was talking about, and can find no record of any such insistence on confidentiality ever being communicated by ERIC to Louisiana or any of the other eight states that have left. No such requirements exist in the compact. After each of the nine states withdrew from ERIC, secretaries were provided with a list of what should remain confidential under federal law — including sensitive voter data from other states provided through ERIC. Louisiana was provided with such a document in early October of 2022. But none of these reminders prevented officials from publicly articulating a rationale for any state’s departure, or prevented any of the departing secretaries from speaking to the media.

Tobler has left the secretary of state’s office, so I contacted the current director of communications — Joel Watson — for a response. Watson said that since Ardoin and Tobler are no longer with the department, “we cannot clarify or speak to their motivations.” Tobler has not responded to an email sent to a personal email address requesting comment.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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