ATLANTA (AP) — A bipartisan effort among states to combat voter fraud has found itself in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories fueled by Donald Trump's false claims about the 2020 presidential election and now faces an uncertain future.
One state has dropped out, a second is in the process of doing so and a handful of other Republican-led states are deciding whether to stay.
The aim of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a voluntary system known as ERIC, has been to help member states maintain accurate lists of registered voters by sharing data that allows officials to identify and remove people who have died or moved to other states. 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 some 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 no longer eligible to vote in the state.
Yet the effort to improve election integrity and thwart voter fraud has become a target of suspicion among some Republicans after a series of online posts early last year questioning its funding and purpose.
Shortly after, Louisiana left the group, citing concerns raised by the posts. A day after being sworn in last month, Alabama's new secretary of state, Wes Allen, sent a letter informing the center of the state's exit after criticizing the program during his campaign.
Other Republican-led states could follow, according to a survey of state election offices by The Associated Press. 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 weigh in, saying they are “closely monitoring the situation with ERIC’s membership.”
The departures and potential for additional ones have frustrated state election officials involved in the effort and have demonstrated how deeply election conspiracies have spread throughout the Republican Party.
“The idea that any state would leave, and we know many are leaving or considering leaving, based solely on misinformation that in most cases they know is not accurate -- it’s bizarre to me,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. “Their leaving directly harms the security and integrity of their own state voter rolls and their ability to keep them up to date and accurate.”
Not all Republican-led states are reevaluating their participation in the program. Of those surveyed by AP, election offices in 23 states and the District of Columbia said they had no intention of leaving, including eight led or controlled by Republicans. Four state offices did not respond: Alaska, Colorado, Delaware and Washington.
Republican officials who said they had no intention to leave signaled strong support for the effort. Iowa’s chief election official said the program, in less than a year, had helped the state identify more than 1,300 deceased voters not included in state data.
“ERIC is an effective tool for ensuring the integrity of Iowa’s voter rolls,” said Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican in his third term.
The program was started in 2012 by seven states and was bipartisan from the beginning, with four of the founding states led by Republicans. Today, 32 states and the District of Columbia are members.
In April, that will drop to 31 when Alabama officially leaves the group. Allen made various claims during his 2022 campaign about the group that prompted a rebuke from then-Secretary of State John Merrill. Merrill, a Republican, noted that ERIC had identified more than 19,000 records of potentially deceased Alabama voters since 2016.
A chief complaint about the program is that it was funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist who has long been the subject of conspiracy theories. While ERIC received initial funding from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, that money was separate from the money provided to Pew by a Soros-affiliated organization that went to an unrelated effort, said ERIC's executive director, Shane Hamlin.
The effort has since been funded through annual dues by member states. Hamlin said the current discussions among member states have been “robust” and decisions are expected soon on potential changes.
“Is the mission of ERIC still relevant? Yes,” Hamlin said. “But are the ways in which members use ERIC to achieve that mission still relevant? Still effective? That is what we are talking about internally.”
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, is among those pushing for changes. In an interview, Ashcroft said he wants the system to drop a requirement for member states to send mailings to eligible but unregistered voters.
“It needs to be focused on cleaning rolls,” Ashcroft said. “It is not the job of the secretary of state to add voters to the rolls. It’s our job to make sure there is a good, simple process for people who meet the requirements to be registered.”
Ashcroft also is weighing the value that taxpayers receive from the program, arguing the state misses out on data for voters who leave Missouri because several surrounding states don’t participate. Time is running out, he said, for changes to be made.
“I have raised them with ERIC, and so far I am not satisfied with their response,” Ashcroft said. “The clock is ticking.”
A fellow 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 endeavor, there are imperfections to that organization and, you know, some of the people involved have caused concern for others,” LaRose told reporters last month. “But I can tell you that it is one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have -- when it comes to actually catching people who try to vote in multiple states, when it comes to maintaining the accuracy of our voter rolls by removing those that move out of 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 prohibit the state from joining.
In California, Kansas and New Hampshire, lawmakers have introduced bills that would enable their states to join it, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting legislation in the states. New York is another high population state that is not currently a member.
Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said he recently appealed to representatives from 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 to join than leave. A lot of this is a tempest in a teacup.”
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.