Some thoughts on L’affaire ERIC

I’ve been a bit surprised, and disappointed, around the actions, and the coverage, about the Electronic Registration Information Center (“ERIC”) in recent weeks, but I have (perhaps, typically?) some different thoughts about the direction and the challenges.

To start, I’m disappointed that states are leaving ERIC. It is the only game in town. But, on the other hand, I entirely understand why states are leaving ERIC, more so than some media coverage suggests.

A Washington Post story recently characterized ERIC as follows: “one of its most powerful tools for keeping ballot fraud at bay just as states are beginning to prepare for the 2024 election calendar.” States leaving ERIC, then, are abandoning such a powerful tool.

But I find the absence of focus on non-member states–more than fifteen, including states like California and New York–puzzling. That is, why are so many states not committed to using this powerful tool? And why is the critique, if you will, on those who loved and lost, rather than any attention on those who never loved at all? It seems as if the motives of withdrawing states have been driving the coverage, rather than genuine questions about its effectiveness in any given state.

One problem in ERIC is a failure to address the legitimate concerns that Republican-leaning states raised. When one reads the coverage, one quickly finds references to “Truth Social” or George Soros (and these I do not consider “legitimate”). But Frank LaRose’s request (raised in the Post) includes important and material concerns, including this one: “Permitting member states to utilize ERIC’s data-sharing services ‘a la carte,’ in the manner which they believe best serves their local interests. For example, members should not be forced to meet specific requirements, such as Eligible but Unregistered voter mailings or cross-state fraud analysis, if they do not deem those actions necessary or relevant to the needs of their respective states.”

ERIC was originally created a kind of two-winged bird. On the one side, there would be obligations for list maintenance, which is the overwhelming focus of the Post and other media coverage. (The New York Times, for instance, calls it a “Bipartisan Voting Integrity Group.”) List maintenance has been notoriously inconsistent in states because frequency varies, counties may have more discretion to decide how to handle the data, and it is costly. That’s not to say it hasn’t been effective–one can easily find hundreds of thousands of voters removed from lists! It’s just to say that efficacy can certainly be disputed.

But the other side is the “eligible but unregistered,” or EBU obligation. To summarize from the Post:

A number of member states have advocated making those two provisions optional to prevent more states from withdrawing, arguing that keeping as many states in the consortium as possible should be the primary goal so that the data-sharing can continue for those that choose to use it. Other members have argued that eliminating the mandates could cause Democratic-run states that favor the voter-registration piece to withdraw.

Depending on their population, states pay anywhere from $26,000 to $116,000 to belong to ERIC, which last year had a budget of about $1.5 million. In addition, states must pay mail costs to fulfill the voter-registration requirement.

ERIC’s members are scheduled to meet on March 17, with plans to vote on a proposed reform that would require all member states to conduct the voter-registration and most list-maintenance functions at least once, but make those functions optional thereafter.

And from Politico:

Florida, West Virginia and Missouri’s departure, however, publicly reveals the broader fight about the organization’s governance and bylaws. Some Republican secretaries of state have been pushing for changes to ERIC, which have been the source of tense discussions for months that the departing secretaries alluded to in their announcements.

Republicans secretaries have been pushing for an end to a requirement around eligible but unregistered voters — sometimes referred to as EBUs. In addition to list maintenance requirements around voters who have out-of-date registrations, ERIC’s bylaws require that state election officials contact those eligible but not registered people at least every two years to see if they would like to register. Some Republican officials want to scrap that requirement.

In his letter announcing his intention to withdraw from the organization, Missouri Secretary of State “Jay” Ashcroft called those mailings superfluous — saying they were going to people who “made the conscious decision to not be registered.”

The EBUs have been a source of major problems over the years. From Colorado inadvertently emailing them to 30,000 non-citizens in 2022, to Florida erroneously telling voters they were not registered because of mismatch problems with the data in 2020, the issues were real here, too. They are exacerbated when voters leave non-ERIC states in increasingly high volumes, like California and New York, into ERIC states, potentially increasing the risk of double voter registrations. And increasing mail obligations are costly.

But the proposal, as LaRose mentions, of an “a la carte” menu of options would solve concerns on both sides. That is, the list maintenance and the EBU mailings would be left to state law (and federal obligations, including the NVRA). ERIC would simply become a data warehouse of parceling out information to states.

That’s what the March 17 meeting was about–and the source of discussions for months ahead of it, as these reports indicate. And it appears, based upon states withdrawing after that date, that the proposals were not agreed to by ERIC. As the Post indicates, “It’s unclear if that proposal will pass, but there is broad consensus that more states will leave if no reforms are adopted, cutting off data-sharing with those states and bringing the organization closer to collapse.” It also appears that some states withdrew ahead of March 17 precisely because they anticipated the vote would fail (indeed, the Post coverage and quotations seemed to suggest as much).

(Another problem is obviously a clash of personality–and minor media celebrity–that has arisen in recent months. I won’t dig into those sordid details, though you can find them in some of the recent exchanges.)

So my question, I think, is to turn the question around. Why weren’t these reforms adopted on March 17? It would be illuminating to ask about specific concerns with the proposals (the Post only indicates that some Democratic states could withdraw if the proposal were adopted). The proposals, from what I’ve read, struck me as fairly non-offensive, but perhaps I’m wrong, and, again, it would be illuminating to see what the problems were with them–problems so essential, apparently, that they are worth bringing ERIC to the point of collapse.

Again, as I opened this post, I am disappointed to see states leave ERIC. It is really the best way to address these concerns at the moment. But I also understand the frustration of states that have obligations in ERIC at some cost and with some questions of efficacy. And if more than fifteen states have been going it alone this whole time, I don’t know that it will be materially different for the ones who are choosing to leave.

Share this: