“New Right-Wing Conspiracies Threaten to Further Starve Local Election Systems”

Spenser Mestel for Bolts:

Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin supreme court justice who said state election officials “stole our votes” days after Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential race, was granted wide latitude by Republicans to investigate voter fraud last year: a budget of $676,000, subpoena power, and months to pursue leads. But the report on the 2020 election that he presented to state lawmakers earlier this month was the usual hodgepodge of Trumpian recommendations, including decertifying the presidential results and outright eliminating the state’s election commission.   

Buried in the report was one proposal that has gone largely unnoticed, but is rapidly gaining steam as a new conservative cause celebre. Gableman called on Wisconsin to exit the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which is a national organization that assists states in maintaining accurate voter rolls. 

Thirty states and the District of Columbia are part of ERIC, from Democratic Illinois to Republican Texas, but this bipartisan organization exploded on the radar for “Stop-the-Steal” activists after the far-right website Gateway Pundit published stories attacking it in January. The website falsely tied ERIC to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who supports an array of progressive causes, calling it a “left wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up,” even though ERIC is governed and financially supported by its member states. 

The articles quickly reverberated on the right. Barely a week later, a Republican lawmaker who is running for secretary state in Alabama said his first act in office would be to withdraw Alabama from ERIC, name-dropping George Soros. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin actually pulled the plug on ERIC over the same period. His office told Votebeat this was not due to The Gateway Pundit’s article but offered no other source for their newfound concerns. 

“Extreme elected officials and operatives pushing disinformation about ERIC are not actually interested in election security and integrity,” Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state of Colorado, one of the original states that founded ERIC in 2012, told Bolts. “This is about chipping away at voter confidence, passing voter suppression laws, and tilting the outcome of future elections.”

Conspiracy theories are easy to weave and hard to untangle, and ever since the presidential race they are being used to raise doubts about conflicts of interest in election administration. 

Conservatives have also seized on grants made by the nonprofit organization Center for Tech and Civil Life (CTCL) to nearly 2,500  jurisdictions during the 2020 elections to help them run elections. CTCL received a donation of at least $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The right has since dubbed these grants “Zuckerbucks” and implied they played a sinister role, and over the past year, a series of Republican-run states including ArizonaKentucky, and South Dakota have banned private grants to election offices to block a repeat. 

Wisconsin has yet to adopt such a ban, but Gableman also recommended that the state follow suit. His report called such grants “election bribery” (multiple lawsuits making this same case have failed), and he explicitly faulted Democratic cities for using the money to boost turnout among Black voters.

The attacks on ERIC reflect a new and broader target in the right’s war on election administration. By fanning paranoia around funding streams, they are cutting off local election offices from the non-profits they are often forced to rely on—including those, like ERIC, that are in truth funded by taxpayers through member states. And without offering more public funding instead, this threatens the offices’ capacity to conduct voter outreach. 

These emerging efforts take advantage of an unfortunate fact about American elections: The local and state offices that actually run our democratic machinery are massively underfunded and have come to rely on outside assistance. This offers countless opportunities for conspiracists to fabricate conflicts of interests, like the spurious thread between George Soros and ERIC, and to sow distrust in elections that can suppress democratic activity .  

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