States’ bipartisan efforts to crack down on voter fraud have been the focus of conspiracy theories fueled by Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 presidential election, and now face an uncertain future.
One state has dropped out, another is in the process of dropping out, and a handful of other Republican-led states are deciding whether to stay.
The purpose of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voluntary system known as ERIC, was to help member states maintain accurate lists of registered voters by sharing data that would allow officials to identify and remove people who died or moved to other states. The reports also help states identify and ultimately prosecute people who vote in multiple states.
In Maryland, state election officials have received reports through the system identifying about 66,000 potentially deceased voters and 778,000 people who may have moved out of state since 2013. In Georgia, the system is credited with providing data to remove nearly 100,000 voters who are no longer eligible to vote in the state.
Still, efforts to improve election integrity and prevent voter fraud have come under suspicion among some Republicans following a series of online reports early last year that questioned its funding and goals.
Shortly thereafter, Louisiana left the group, citing concern over the reports. A day after being sworn in last month, new Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen sent a letter informing the center of the state’s withdrawal after criticizing the program during his campaign.
Other Republican-led states may follow suit, according to an Associated Press poll of state election offices. Officials in Florida and Missouri said they are evaluating their participation, while legislation in Texas could force the state to leave. West Virginia election officials declined to comment, saying they were “closely monitoring the ERIC membership situation.”
The departures and the potential for more frustrated state election officials involved in the effort and demonstrated how deep the GOP election conspiracy has spread.
“The idea that any state is going to secede, and we know that many of them are seceding or considering seceding, is based solely on misinformation, which in most cases is not true, is amazing to me,” said Michigan’s secretary of state, Democrat Jocelyn Benson. “Their departure directly harms the security and integrity of their own state voter rolls and their ability to keep them current and accurate.”
Not all Republican-led states are reconsidering their participation in the program. Of the examined a AP, election boards in 23 states and the District of Columbia have said they have no intention of leaving, including eight that are led or controlled by Republicans. Four state offices did not respond: Alaska, Colorado, Delaware and Washington.
Republican officials, who have said they have no intention of leaving, have shown strong support for the effort. Iowa’s top elections official said the program has helped the state identify more than 1,300 deceased voters not included in state records in less than a year.
“ERIC is an effective tool for ensuring the integrity of Iowa’s voter rolls,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a third-term Republican.
The program was launched in 2012 by seven states and has been bipartisan from the start, with four of the founding states led by Republicans. Today, 32 states and the District of Columbia are members.
This will drop to 31 in April Alabama officially leaves the group. During his 2022 re-election campaign, Allen made various statements about the group, prompting a rebuke from then-Secretary of State John Merrill. Merrill, a Republican, noted that since 2016, ERIC has identified more than 19,000 records of potentially deceased Alabama voters.
The main claim against the program is that it was funded by George Soros, a billionaire investor and philanthropist who has long been the target of conspiracy theories. Although ERIC’s initial funding came from the nonpartisan Pew Philanthropy Foundation, that money was separate from money given to Pew by a Soros-linked organization that went to unrelated efforts, ERIC Executive Director Shane Hamlin said.
Since then, the effort has been funded by member states through annual contributions. Hamlin said current discussions between member states were “robust” and decisions on possible changes were expected soon.
“Is ERIC’s mission still relevant? Yes, Hamlin said. “But are the ways in which members use ERIC to achieve that mission still relevant? Still effective? This is what we are talking about domestically.”
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, is among those pushing for change. In an interview, Ashcroft said he wants the system to drop the requirement for member states to send mailings to unregistered voters who are eligible to vote.
“It should be focused on cleaning the rolls,” Ashcroft said. “In the duties of the state secretary, voters are included in the lists. Our job is to make sure there’s a good and easy sign-up process for people who qualify.”
Ashcroft also weighed in on the value taxpayers get from the program, arguing the state doesn’t get data for voters who leave Missouri because several surrounding states don’t participate. The time for change, he said, is running out.
“I’ve brought them up with ERIC, and so far I’m not happy with their response,” Ashcroft said. “The clock is ticking.”
Another Republican, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, said he was aware of concerns about the program but remained confident in the effort.
“Like any human activity, there are imperfections in this organization, and, you know, some of the people involved have caused concern in others,” LaRose told reporters last month. “But I can tell you that it’s one of the best anti-fraud tools we have — when it comes to catching people trying to vote in multiple states, when it comes to keeping our voter rolls accurate by removing those who is leaving the state.”
Lawmakers in Texas have introduced legislation that, if passed and signed into law, would require the state to leave the system. In Oklahoma, proposed legislation would bar the state from joining.
In California, Kansas and New Hampshire, lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow their states to join, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks state voting laws. New York is another state with a large population that is not currently a member.
Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said he recently reached out to representatives of three other Republican-led states to join the system.
“A lot of this is politics and gets in the way of good election administration,” Sterling said. “At the end of the day, we want more people joining than leaving. In many ways, it’s a storm in a teacup.”
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smith in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.