Right-wing conspiracies have a new target: a tool that fights actual voter fraud
If Republicans over the past few years have made one thing clear, it's that they really care about voter fraud.
Which is what makes a currently blossoming election conspiracy so strange: The far-right is now running a disinformation campaign against one of the best tools states have to detect and prevent voter fraud.
And experts worry voting policy is already starting to suffer as a result.
A data sharing revolution
The tool is a shared database called the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC for short. It allows states to securely share voter registration data across state lines and with a number of other government agencies, like the Social Security Administration and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
That data sharing allows participating states to expand ballot access, by giving officials information on eligible voters they can reach out to who have moved into their jurisdiction but have not yet registered to vote. But it also increases election security by notifying those same officials when a registered voter moves away or dies, allowing states to maintain more accurate voter rolls.
"When you move away from a state, you don't call your old state and say, 'Please take me off the voter lists,' " said David Becker, an elections expert and former Justice Department attorney who led the development of ERIC while working at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "So to get really strong data that someone moved to another state — got a driver's license there or maybe registered to vote — that's really powerful information that allows states to keep their data up to date."
The decade-old program now includes more than 30 states spanning the political spectrum, from Republican-led places like Alabama and South Carolina to more liberal states like Connecticut and Oregon.
But that bipartisan unity is now being tested, as some pockets of conservative media have ignited a pressure campaign against ERIC.
'Cutting their nose to spite their face'
On Jan. 20, the far-right blog The Gateway Pundit published the first of a number of articles about the program, falsely implying it is part of a left-wing election conspiracy.
Seven days later, Louisiana withdrew its membership, becoming the first state since ERIC's founding ever to do so.
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin announced the move quietly in a press release, citing "concerns raised by citizens, government watchdog organizations and media reports."
His office declined an interview request from NPR, but a member of Ardoin's staff said the secretary is still in touch with ERIC staff "to better understand the mechanics of ERIC" despite having "serious reservations."
Other Republican election officials told NPR the far-right misinformation campaign is reverberating in their states too.
"We have had a number of emails from some very ill-informed, uninformed or uneducated people," said Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican.
Merrill is a supporter of former President Donald Trump, but also of ERIC. He's not running for reelection this fall, however, and at least one Republican candidate to replace Merrill has already announced he would withdraw the state from ERIC should he be elected.
That far-right pushback has been somewhat frustrating to Merrill, who noted the system provides the only way states have to accurately check if someone has illegally cast a ballot in the same election in two different states.
"It helps identify duplicate registrations," Merrill said. "It helps identify dual participation in elections. That's a concern [and] there's no other way that any state in the union can do that independently of ERIC."
So why is this system being targeted then?
Becker, who now runs the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, says it's because election deniers don't actually want voting to be more secure or efficient. It's the same reason, he says, they often oppose ballot drop boxes even though they are considered a more secure way to return mail ballots than using the Postal Service.
"They don't care about actual integrity," Becker said. "They only care that their side wins. That is the most anti-democratic idea that I can imagine."
In a Twitter thread posted shortly after Louisiana's decision, Becker noted that since the state joined ERIC in 2014, the program has identified more than 16,000 dead people on Louisiana's voting lists and more than 54,000 people who have moved out of the state. But by choosing to leave, the state will no longer have access to that data.
"If a state leaves ERIC, what they're doing is cutting their nose to spite their face," Becker said. "They're handcuffing their ability to keep their lists accurate."
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