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GOP lawmakers want to block NC from a partnership that helps maintain clean voter rolls

Established in 2012, the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, had grown to more than 30 states, from red like Texas to blue like Massachusetts. But a host of red states have left the organization over the past year amid disinformation about ERIC steeped in partisanship.
ERIC web site
Established in 2012, the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, had grown to more than 30 states, from red like Texas to blue like Massachusetts. But a host of red states have left the organization over the past year amid disinformation about ERIC steeped in partisanship.

Updated at 9:54 a.m.

Karen Brinson Bell has wanted North Carolina to join ERIC since she took over as executive director of the State Board of Elections in 2019.

"What we would like to do is be able to update beyond just the data we have in North Carolina to ensure that when someone moves across state lines, or dies across state lines, that that is accurately reflected in our rolls as well," Brinson Bell told WUNC.

So Brinson Bell welcomed the news last year when the Republican-majority state legislature appropriated available federal election funds to pay to join ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center.

ERIC was started in 2012 by seven states, four of them with Republicans in charge of elections. Its members share information on the movement of voters. So when a person moves to another member state but forgets to change their old registration status, the voter rolls get updated properly.

Karen Brinson Bell, Exec. Dir. of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, in her office on March 23, 2023.
Rusty Jacobs
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, in her office on March 22, 2023.

"It is the only game in town, there used to be another program named Crosscheck," Brinson Bell said.

Promoted by Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican and one of the most vocal proponents of the lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential race, the controversial Interstate Crosscheck system was shut down in 2019 amid data breaches and litigation by civil rights groups.

Meanwhile, since 2012, ERIC's membership had grown to more than 30 members, a balanced mix of red states like Texas and Utah, to blue like Massachusetts and Oregon. It is a voluntary organization run and funded entirely by its members.

Member states pay a $25,000 initiation fee and then annual dues determined by the size of their voting-age population, ranging from $26,000 to $116,000 per year. And ERIC's governing by-laws must be adopted by a super-majority vote of four-fifths, or 80% of ERIC's member states.

"That was by design from the beginning and it's the way it should be," said David Becker, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Election Innovation & Research.

Becker's organization distributed grants to states for help with elections administration in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, focuses on countering false narratives about voter fraud, works to improve election security, and also pairs pro bono lawyers with elections officials facing harassment and frivolous litigation. He worked on elections law for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

"For ERIC to work, it's important that blue states and red states can both join and be incentivized to join," Becker said.

For example, Becker explained, blue states might favor policies that encourage eligible voters to register, whereas red-leaning states might want to put more focus on cleaning voter rolls.

"And if you talk to any election official what they'll tell you is we should doing both," he continued. "We should make sure that all eligible voters are on the list but only eligible voters are on the list."

Disinformation and division

Until recently, Becker was an ex officio, non-voting member on ERIC's board, but he stepped down amid attacks from the right.

"I didn't think it was good for ERIC to react to disinformation centered around me," he said.

Becker has become a lightning rod for conservatives who sow skepticism about elections. As the head of the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts back in 2008, Becker helped conceive and set up ERIC.

Meanwhile, a group of Republican and conservative public officials, including many elections administrators, recently issued a joint letter in support of Becker defending him against the partisan attacks.

Becker said partisans on the right who claim they're fighting voter fraud in the name of election integrity are seeking to disband an organization that is one of the best tools for preventing such fraud, as rare as it is.

"They want losing candidates to be able to raise more money after an election spreading lies about why they lost that election," he said.

Becker was talking about people like Trump and Mike Lindell — the MyPillow guy — who holds election integrity summits while steering disgruntled voters to his retail products with promo codes, and candidates like Republican Kari Lake who rake in campaign funds while trying to litigate a victory out of her certified loss in the 2022 Arizona governor's race.

The disinformation about ERIC is yielding results, though. Last year Louisiana pulled out, followed by Alabama, whose Republican secretary of state ran on the issue of leaving ERIC.

More recently, Florida, Missouri, West Virginia, and Ohio also have left ERIC — all states with Republicans in charge of elections. In Ohio, Republican Sec. of State Frank LaRose previously called ERIC one of the best fraud-fighting tools available. LaRose is in a GOP primary for U.S. Senate.

Now, that message seems to be reaching some Republican lawmakers in North Carolina.

"I don't see that we need to share the information of our citizens with everybody in the world," said Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba, Iredell), explaining the reason for the bill he filed this session that would repeal funding for North Carolina to join ERIC.

Rusty Jacobs
Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba, Iredell)

The bill comes just a year after the GOP-led legislature authorized the use of federal election funds to join ERIC, and it now appears—along with an outright prohibition on ever joining ERIC—as a provision in an early version of the next two-year budget plan (for fiscal years 2023-25) proposed by the state House.

The GOP-led Senate will now take up the budget; a final version probably won't be released before June.

Setzer said his bill is a response to constituent concerns about the sharing of voter data and personal information, and is not driven by partisanship.

Setzer is a longtime state representative from Catawba County, in the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge mountains. Last year, he ran unopposed in his House district covering Catawba and part of Iredell County. He did, however, have to fend off two other Republicans in a primary.

Republicans joining the campaign against ERIC, may strike a chord with the same voters previously mobilized by concerns about voter fraud.

Until, and unless, a repeal of funding for joining ERIC is enacted, North Carolina elections officials are proceeding with plans to join the organization, a bureaucratic process which still could take a few months.

Keeping voter information safe

ERIC's member states share voter registration data, including records with information like name, address, date of birth and last four digits of social security numbers.

ERIC does not disclose detailed information about its security measures, but the website says the organization applies something called a "cryptographic one-way hash" to protect sensitive voter information from hacking.

David Becker is not the only one who sees efforts to disparage ERIC as cynical and hyper-partisan. It is also Republicans like Georgia Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger, who called ERIC a "cornerstone" of the "conservative, Republican principle of maintaining clean voter rolls."

"Anyone saying otherwise is being played by people that want a dirty voter roll and then, if they lose an election, they can blame it on having a dirty list or they'll use it to litigate their way to winning an election," Raffensperger told WUNC.

After the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump infamously called Raffensperger and tried to pressure him to recalculate Georgia's results and find the 11,870 votes he would have needed to prevail in that state.

Raffensperger said the purpose of ERIC is "to make sure we have clean, accurate rolls, period."

Raffensperger said ERIC has helped Georgia remove hundreds of thousands of obsolete voter records from Georgia's rolls. He added that pulling out of ERIC would only make voter rolls dirtier, which is not conducive to a vibrant, healthy constitutional republic.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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