This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.
When newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off a series of election security reforms in 2019, he said, “protecting the integrity of Florida’s elections” was one of his “top priorities.” In addition to giving $2 million to local election offices to shore up defenses and initiating a review of all 67 counties’ cyber practices, he also that year announced that Florida was joining the Electronic Registration Information Center — an obscure nonprofit that would help the massive state clean its voter roll and reach out to eligible but unregistered voters.
“We want to make sure that the voter rolls are accurate, and one of the best ways to do that, I think, is for Florida to join the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC,” DeSantis said at an August 2019 news conference.
So, starting the following year, Florida shared motor vehicle and voter registration data with ERIC. Using similar data from states across the country, ERIC produced a list of people who were registered in Florida but had moved, died, or otherwise rendered themselves ineligible to vote in the state. It also provided Florida with a list of people who were eligible to vote but had not registered.
The state received its first tranche of data from ERIC ahead of the 2020 election, using it to reach out to more than 2 million eligible but unregistered voters. DeSantis enjoys bragging that Republican registration caught up to Democrats for the very first time during his tenure. Then, in 2021, counties began to use ERIC data to remove thousands of registered voters who’d moved out of state or died.
In 2022, DeSantis announced an entire police force dedicated to solving election crimes. The newly-assembled squad told the media it received much of its information on double voting and ineligible registrations from ERIC. Last month, for example, a man in Pinellas County was arrested and charged with a felony for allegedly casting two ballots in the 2020 election after ERIC flagged him.
The same day the arrest was made, DeSantis announced Florida would leave the program.
Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio have also announced their exits, and Iowa’s secretary of state has said he’ll ask the Legislature to end the state’s participation. Texas is widely expected to be next in line. Like DeSantis, officials and Republican activists in each state had previously and recently praised the program.
DeSantis’s office didn’t respond to questions from Votebeat about the state’s sudden pivot, instead referring Votebeat to the Office of Secretary of State Cord Byrd. A spokesperson for Byrd responded with a link to an interview Byrd had given to One American News Network, a right-wing news outlet, about the decision to leave ERIC.
In the interview, Byrd said “nothing stops” Florida from continuing to share information with other states “who value voter integrity.” While it’s true Florida can continue to negotiate individual data-sharing agreements with each state in the country, experts widely agree there is no program as robust as ERIC. The office declined to comment further, and DeSantis’ office said it wouldn’t answer any questions.
“You will get whatever comment we decide to provide and nothing more,” wrote Jeremy Redfern, a DeSantis spokesperson.
The clearest explanation for these states’ reversal is the unrelenting campaign against ERIC, begun by a fringe publication, The Gateway Pundit, in early 2022. Louisiana was the first state to withdraw, shortly after the coverage began. Then, the storyline spun out.
“Last year The Gateway Pundit reported on the ERIC Systems in a series of articles and follow-up reports for over a year now,” Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft wrote last month. “These articles have gone viral and are being passed on to state officials.”
Across the country, local Republican groups began demanding answers about ERIC, and powerful local activists began to insist their elected officials leave the program. These demands have grown so loud that many who once sang the praises of ERIC can no longer resist turning on it.
For example, Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit, recently released a scathing notice calling ERIC “a syndicate founded by leftists.” They did so despite having previously agreed to a settlement in their lawsuit against the state of Kentucky over its bloated voter rolls in 2018 which required Kentucky to join ERIC.
“Dirty voting rolls can mean dirty elections, so it is essential that dead and long-gone voters be removed from voter registration lists,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a press release after Kentucky announced it would remove thousands of people from the rolls, thanks to information it received from the program.
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft routinely touted his outreach to unregistered but eligible voters, attributing the data to ERIC. “The benefits of ERIC include increasing the number of registered eligible voters and ensuring voters have a smooth process on election day,” he said in 2018. Still, last month he said he “came to the realization” that ERIC’s operations, including its focus on voter registration, raised concerns.
In an interview, Ashcroft acknowledged that ERIC helped his state clean its voter rolls, but said that his concerns about partisanship, the influence of non-voting board members, and concerns over what he characterized as insufficient data provided by the program.
He said he had “no idea” what Gateway Pundit had written last year about ERIC.
“I don’t tend to read Gateway Pundit,” he said.
Ashcroft has been interviewed by Gateway Pundit, and Gateway Pundit personally called for Ashcroft to leave ERIC, publishing letters from advocacy groups. The website, at least, believes its outreach worked.
“Our message is resonating,” reads an article published last month. “In early March, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft notified The Gateway Pundit that Missouri was cutting ties with ERIC.”
Ashcroft confirmed to Votebeat he’d notified Gateway Pundit ahead even of notifying ERIC of his state’s departure. He nonetheless maintained that the publication had no influence on his decision.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner took to the media in 2018 to praise the “long overdue” cleaning of the state’s voter rolls — something only possible because of the state’s recent entry into ERIC. Since his decision to pull out of ERIC in March, Warner’s staff have privately expressed disbelief about the move to their counterparts in other states and have acknowledged there is no factual basis for the departure, three officials who have participated in the conversations confirmed to Votebeat.
Warner’s spokesperson, Landon Palmer, declined to comment on the nature of the disagreement between Warner and his staff.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose has repeatedly bragged about Ohio’s participation in ERIC, and has sent out multiple press releases announcing recommended prosecution for voter fraud based on data provided by the program.
“One of the big reasons voter fraud is so rare is because states are stepping up to enforce the law whenever it is broken,” he said in a 2019 recommendation that 18 voters in Ohio be prosecuted for voting twice — information obtained via ERIC.
LaRose ended Ohio’s participation only a month after telling NPR that ERIC was “one of the best” tools to fight voter fraud.
LaRose’s spokesperson, Rob Nichols, claimed LaRose had been unsatisfied and seeking change within ERIC for nearly nine months. None of the nearly two dozen people interviewed for this story remembered any advocacy by LaRose prior to this year. Despite Votebeat’s repeated requests, Nichols provided no documentation of the secretary’s months-long efforts, which he said had failed because “outside influences sabotaged our office’s efforts.”
Similarly, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate told NPR that ERIC was “a godsend.” In late 2019, he referred nine Iowa voters to county attorneys for prosecution for double voting, data his office had obtained from ERIC.
“One fraudulent vote is too many. It nullifies a legally cast vote,” Pate said then. “Iowans take the integrity of our elections very seriously and we will not stand for people trying to cheat the system.”
The calculus behind a stance against ERIC may be different for many of these officials in 2023. Ashcroft announced a bid to run for governor in Missouri last week. Warner is running for governor in West Virginia. LaRose is considering a bid for the U.S. Senate. And DeSantis is now widely considered a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Experts say the choice to leave will result in dirtier voter rolls in all of these states, something Republicans have so far treated as an anathema. It will also mean ERIC is less effective for the states that remain. Departing states will no longer share information with ERIC about people who move to or die in their states — an especially harmful step when taken by population centers such as Florida, a destination for retirees.
Officials from other member states who have participated in the tense meetings over ERIC’s future in the last month say that officials in every departing state privately acknowledge their voter rolls will suffer as a result. The increasingly uncomfortable politics of the thing, more than any specific policy difference, explains their departures, those remaining officials say.
At the last board meeting, on March 17, members voted on a collection of changes to ERIC’s bylaws that had been proposed by Republican states, led by Ohio’s LaRose. Among other things, he wanted to remove ex-officio members from the board and make ERIC’s requirement that states reach out to unregistered voters optional. Only his proposal about ex-officio members passed, and Ohio and Iowa announced their departures shortly afterward.
Those who voted against the changes were unapologetic and even angry at the states who’d made the requests.
“It’s like we had a gun to our head: do what our base wants because they believe lies, or we’re out,” said a person who attended the meeting and asked not to be named talking about the discussions, which are closed to the public. “It was like they just wanted us to bow down to the same people who’d threatened us, harassed us and made our lives hell for the last three years.”
Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state and a Republican, tried to bridge the divide between the two groups, offering a compromise measure he told Votebeat he hoped would “provide common ground in hopes we could keep as many states as possible.” That measure also failed.
Raffensperger, who has faced intense harassment and criticism since resisting former President Donald Trump’s demand to find him “more votes” in 2020, says he has no plans to leave ERIC. “The more Republican states you have in there, it’s more likely you have changes Republicans want. You have a seat at the table,” he said. “Their voter rolls won’t be as clean as Georgia’s.”
The day Ohio announced it would leave the program, Raffensperger tweeted a GIF of children’s character Spongebob Squarepants punching himself in the face. “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,” he tweeted. The states who’d pulled out had “hurt their own state & others while undermining voter confidence.”
States departing ERIC have alleged ERIC has committed a series of offenses. Among the main charges: An early relationship with a nonprofit they accuse of being left leaning, alleged influence by a “hyperpartisan individual,” giving inappropriate access to voter data to other liberal activists, mass-registering voters across the country to the benefit of Democrats, and ERIC’s requirements that states do voter outreach as part of their participation.
But those objections — a mix of true and untrue claims — are all conveniently recent, even though little about the program has changed. Prior to Gateway Pundit’s coverage and the ensuing viral misinformation, ERIC’s origins were already known by member states and the public — at least, the members of the public who were interested in something so arcane. Requirements for voter outreach were widely popular, and ERIC’s bylaws spell out data access and security measures, none of which had previously been criticized by the conservative states eager to join the program.
ERIC was created in 2012 by the Pew Charitable Trusts — a nonpartisan nonprofit — which Gateway Pundit and others have falsely claimed is heavily funded by liberal mega donor George Soros. In reality, the Open Society Foundation, which Soros owns, gave a one-time contribution of half a million dollars to Pew for voting-rights work unrelated to ERIC that took place from 2009 to 2011. The sum makes up a small fraction of the more than $300 million a year Pew brings in annually.
Pew is no longer affiliated with ERIC, which became member-led shortly after it was launched with an initial seven states. It remains managed and funded directly by the member states that share data with it, though Pew provided a grant for technology upgrades in 2019.
Even states that have left the program while criticizing the affiliation and partisan lean had publicly acknowledged the affiliation for years.
An explanation of the program on the Missouri Secretary of State’s website, which as of this writing is still live, says ERIC was “formed in 2012 with assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts.”
Rick Scott, who preceded DeSantis as governor of Florida and now represents the state in the Senate, resisted joining the program while in office as a result of the Pew connection. In 2019, after DeSantis announced Florida would join ERIC, Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline told Politico the former governor hadn’t done the same because he “did not believe it was right to share the personal information of every Florida voter with a liberal think tank.” It was the first time he’d offered an explanation, albeit a misleading one, of his resistance to the program, which he was repeatedly asked about by local media and election officials.
But aside from Scott’s relatively quiet objections, few others expressed alarm about ERIC’s early connection to Pew. Membership ticked up every year, with enrollment largely evenly split between red and blue states. Newspapers and community groups in states that hadn’t joined demanded to know why their state wasn’t dedicated to cleaning up the rolls.
“If Alabama can join such an endeavor, one using readily available technology to make voting easier, why can’t Kansas?” read a 2016 editorial from the Salina Journal.
Texas joined in 2020 after the Legislature funded the effort. A group of “Texas grassroots political leaders” wrote a letter in 2018 demanding the state join, citing a state law that requires participation in an interstate data exchange to clean voter rolls. “Based on information we’ve gathered, we have every reason to believe this law is being ignored by the Secretary of State’s Office,” they wrote. “If there are persons who are dually registered to vote in Texas and another state, and these persons have voted in Texas elections, this is just one more way our constitutionally guaranteed civil rights are being violated.”
Since its founding, ERIC says it has found nearly 11.5 million voters registered in more than one state.
Accusations around ERIC’s partisanship have largely centered on one man: David Becker, the founder and director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research. Becker helped create ERIC while he was with Pew, prior to starting CEIR, and until a few weeks ago was an ex-officio board member for ERIC.
In 2020, CEIR helped distribute millions of dollars to state elections offices that had been donated by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to shore up local voting resources as a global pandemic raged.
Labeling the money “Zuckerbucks,” even mainstream Republicans falsely claimed the donations swung the election for Biden. A Federal Election Commission investigation would later conclude there was “no indication that [Chan and Zuckerberg] coordinated with any candidate or committee,” and the nonprofit that distributed the bulk of the money, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, said grants were awarded to every election jurisdiction that chose to apply.
Regardless, Gateway Pundit alleged that the affiliation between Becker and ERIC meant “left wing activists created ERIC to clean voter rolls their way, using their rules.” The publication also alleged Becker had personal access to the data ERIC held, and used it to register Democrats across the country.
Both ERIC and Becker say that’s not what happened.
They say CEIR received limited, largely anonymized data that specific states directed ERIC to send because they had joined a CEIR-led effort to test the effectiveness of the states’ voter outreach.
“CEIR signed an [non-disclosure agreement] with the states and gave them specific instructions to ensure that no sensitive data was included,” Becker said. “It’s important to note that this was all done with the consent and under the instructions of the states that chose to participate in the study, which we’re finalizing for release in the next few months.”
The states’ outreach to these voters — consistent with ERIC’s requirements — consisted of a postcard with instructions on how to register.
For his part, Shane Hamlin, executive director of ERIC, said that the data Becker received did not come directly from ERIC but from the member states themselves. “Only authorized ERIC employees have access to ERIC’s servers or the data on the servers,” he said. “This has always been the case.”
Neither Becker nor ERIC had direct access to voter roll management systems in any state, something that is routinely confirmed in state reports on ERIC and by ERIC itself, making it impossible for the program or Becker to directly add new voters to the rolls. While on the board, Becker had no vote over ERIC’s policies or direction, and could have been removed from his position at any time by member states.
Still, nearly every state that has exited has cited Becker — named or otherwise — as a reason.
Missouri’s Ashcroft, for example, said a “hyper-partisan individual” was serving as an ex-officio member of the board. Becker was the only such member. Similar concerns were articulated by Alabama, West Virginia, Ohio and Iowa.
In an interview, Ashcroft said he began expressing concerns about Becker as early as last summer, and had asked him to leave the board at that time but that Becker “became highly partisan, and refused to leave the board.”
Becker denies this.
“I haven’t spoken to Jay Ashcroft in years, if I’ve ever spoken to him at all. He has never tried to contact me. He never asked me to resign from the board,” he said. “If he wants to ever speak to me, even just to tell me to go to hell, I would welcome the conversation.”
Asked about Ashcroft’s concerns, ERIC board members from three states could not remember him participating in meetings about ERIC at all prior to Gateway Pundit’s coverage. No one recalled an effort to remove Becker from the board last summer. In his interview with Votebeat last week, Ashcroft insisted that the March 17 vote to remove ex-officio board members had failed. It had passed.
States that have left ERIC citing Becker’s involvement have previously contracted with CEIR and with Becker himself. The same states also scrambled to apply for the “Zuckerbucks” they now criticize: Florida received nearly $300,000. Missouri, Iowa, and Ohio each received more than $1 million.
CEIR released a letter in March signed by nearly 30 conservatives in support of Becker and detailed Becker’s bipartisanship. “He began working at the Department of Justice Voting Section in 1998, during the Clinton administration, and continued until 2005, working twice as long in the W. Bush administration,” they wrote, noting that the Bush DOJ had “awarded Becker the Civil Rights Division’s highest honor for a career attorney – the Special Commendation for Merit.”
The turbulence means an uncertain future for ERIC. At each point of the crisis, beginning with Louisiana’s pause in membership, those involved assumed the bleeding had stopped. At each point, they were incorrect.
Louisiana had been the first state to leave, shortly after the Gateway Pundit articles were published in January 2022. The office didn’t offer any specific reasoning for pausing and then withdrawing from the program, nor has it since. At the time, spokesman John Tobler would only tell Votebeat that “numerous” experts had expressed concerns over “election stuff.” He declined to name them, or detail their concerns.
“I am not at liberty to disclose that,” he said.
The decision seemed so abrupt and ill-informed that the election officials and experts who pay close attention largely assumed it was a one-off problem. But right-wing publications and activists praised Ardoin for his choice. “Louisiana is the first and only one yet to terminate its relationship with ERIC due to serious security concerns regarding ERIC’s management of voter registration information,” wrote the founder of Gateway Pundit in August 2022.
Gateway Pundit wouldn’t have to limit its praise for long.
Wes Allen, who was at the time running for secretary of state in Alabama to replace John Merrill, also a Republican, was campaigning on exiting the program. He was elected in November, and withdrew as one of his first acts in office.
Merrill has been vocally opposed to the move since Allen first announced his views, refuting the claims that have tainted ERIC’s reputation. “Nothing has ever happened. Nothing’s ever been documented. Only these failed claims that have been introduced without any empirical data to back it up whatsoever,” Merrill told Votebeat last month. “Why would you want to eliminate this? That tool has helped us be in a position to prosecute those people who have violated the trust and confidence of the process.”
Now that multiple other large, Republican-leaning states have joined Louisiana and Alabama, remaining participants are concerned that states will begin only sharing information with their politically like-minded counterparts — something that would make everyone’s voter rolls dirtier and yet another sign that even arcane aspects of election administration are now partisan.
“It’s not just red states we want to share this information with,” said Raffensperger. “I want to know that they’ve registered in what you’d call a blue state. The more member states, the better everyone’s data is going to be.”
He’s concerned that states that have yet to join ERIC may resist joining given the controversy, or because the program will become less valuable and may no longer be worth the hassle if more high-profile states exit.
California’s secretary of state’s office, which has been considering membership in ERIC for years, told Votebeat any decisions made “won’t be influenced by obvious disinformation. We’ll make our decision based on what’s best for California voters.”
In the meantime, states that have departed or are considering it have said they’ll seek an alternative to the program, so as to not sacrifice the cleanliness of rolls. Texas, for example, demoted its election director, Keith Ingram, and kept him on the state’s payroll to facilitate the creation of such an alternative. Experts widely agree this is a long shot.
“It’s self-defeating to leave ERIC,” said Steve Simon, secretary of state for Minnesota. “There is no current alternative to ERIC and there won’t be for a long time.”
Raffensperger said that, in theory, he’d be willing to join other programs in addition to ERIC, but “they aren’t available right now, and I’m living in the present,” he said. “You have to stand up for the truth, and you have to stand up for the facts. We are standing up for ERIC.”
Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.