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Quitting multistate voter-data program plays into conspiracy theorists’ hands


Quitting multistate voter-data program plays into conspiracy theorists’ hands

May 18, 2023 | 12:04 am ET
By Roger Chesley
Quitting multistate voter-data program plays into conspiracy theorists’ hands
A voting sign at Pemberton Elementary School in Henrico,, November 5, 2019. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ for the Virginia Mercury)

It’s official: State elections administrators, following a path trod by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, have quaffed the MAGA Kool-Aid.

Sadly, the sickly-sweet aftertaste will harm Virginians of all political stripes.

Susan Beals, a Youngkin appointee as commissioner of the state Department of Elections, last week announced the commonwealth would leave the compact known as the Electronic Registration Information Center. Virginia will become the latest of several states, controlled by Republican leaders, to leave the program that enhances voter registration and security.

The party always wailing about voter fraud – even though it’s minuscule – has been successful in getting states to leave an organization that fights voter fraud. This destructive campaign makes no sense – unless you want to cast doubt on election results.

ERIC was a noncontroversial, effective program, and Virginia was a charter member in 2012 under then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican. The goals of the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization are two-pronged: Use data from motor vehicles departments, the U.S. Postal Service and other voter registration offices to check for voters who have died or moved out of state. And help states reach out to potentially eligible voters who haven’t registered.

“There’s no great substitute for ERIC,” John Fortier told me. He’s a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on elections and former director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Democracy Project.

There’s no great substitute for ERIC.

– John Fortier, American Enterprise Institute

ERIC had gone about its data-sharing work out of the spotlight – until conspiracy theorists and disingenuous politicians lambasted it. The complaints increased after Trump’s Big Lie following the 2020 presidential election.

“It’s clear that here in Virginia our Republican leaders are buying into ([Donald]) Trump’s lies, they are buying the Big Lie, they’re running with it, and they’re making policy based on it,” Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church, said at a news conference this week about Beals’ decision.

A Votebeat.org story last year chronicles the unhinged brayings of extremists who add 2 + 2 to come up with 563. They claim ERIC is a Democratic Party plot to win contests.

To sum up their reasoning: Critics contend because liberal benefactor George Soros once donated $500,000 to the Pew Charitable Trusts for voting access activities, this must be a left-wing plot. In truth, Votebeat reported, Pew provided startup money to ERIC in 2012 (the nonpartisan research center receives grants of more than $300 million annually) and has given relatively little to ERIC since then.

Besides, the program later switched to a member-funded model. It’s just plain false to say Soros, a frequent boogeyman of the right, contributed directly to ERIC or controlled it.

Beals, in a May 11 letter to ERIC’s executive director, contends Virginia is leaving, among other reasons, because of the recent departures of seven other state members, increasing costs and “incomplete participation of Virginia’s bordering states and jurisdictions that compel independent data sharing relationships with non-ERIC members.”

The costs, though, are a mere pittance. ERIC’s FY ’22 dues for Virginia were $37,000, and they rose to $54,000 in the current fiscal year, Department of Elections spokeswoman Andrea Gaines told me by email.

That’s pocket dust in an operating budget of $42 million.

Nor are the so-called shortcomings consistent with what Virginia officials in the Youngkin administration said recently about the program. As my colleague Graham Moomaw reported, Josh Lief in the Attorney General’s Office within the past year called ERIC “a benefit to the commonwealth.”

Richmond NPR affiliate VPM News reported what elections department staff said last fall: “The data quality from the ERIC program is significantly better than other interstate exchange programs and any program that ELECT (the department’s acronym) could operate in-house with existing resources.”

When I asked Gaines why the department had changed course, she answered: “Commissioner Beals’ consistent position has been that she is carefully examining Virginia’s relationship with ERIC and pushing for needed reforms. She has also publicly stated that ELECT is reviewing all of its data-sharing relationships with state agencies for the purposes of list maintenance.”

Have things fallen off a cliff so dramatically in a year that ERIC is irredeemable?

Gaines said the elections department will continue several list maintenance steps, including removing dead voters based on information gathered from the state Department of Health. It’s also talking with other states “about creating new state-to-state data-sharing relationships for the purpose of identifying potential double voters.” She declined to say which states.

If Virginia enters a compact that has only Republican-led states, why would non-Republican voters trust it? ERIC’s non-partisanship lent it credibility.

Fortier, at the American Enterprise Institute, said Democrats tended to like ERIC’s voter outreach, while Republicans favored the voter list maintenance. “ERIC was sort of a compromise,” he told me.

States that leave it, Fortier said, won’t be able to duplicate the data-gathering and technology ERIC provided anytime soon. “It took time to build,” he noted.

That fact is important in a place like Virginia, which has elections every year.

It’s no stretch to say the department is merely following the tack set by Youngkin, who played coy during his party’s gubernatorial nomination process about whether the 2020 presidential election was won by Joe Biden. Since Youngkin won in 2021, he’s elevated his national profile by traveling to other states and stumping for GOP candidates, including election deniers.

Many Republican voters demand their candidates repeat the lie that Trump won. Shame on the craven politicos who knuckle under.

That’s why pulling out of ERIC is so harmful. It will make it easier to question election results and assail their accuracy. Winners will continue to be under a microscope.

It’s a lousy move that emboldens the delusional and weakens democracy.