Ambrogi and Senecal: “Voter Registration Systems Need Both Access & Security – How ERIC Helps State Government Strike the Balance”

The following is a guest post by Adam Ambrogi and Jeanette Senecal:

Much debate over election administration in the last 20 years has focused on the balance between access and security.  Imagine every election policy on a spectrum —from maximum accessibility to maximum security.  The very ends of that spectrum in any direction would result in an election system that would not work for most of the voting public. Let’s look at how those two ends of the spectrum might look in practice.

Imagine at one end, a hypothetical ‘maximum security’ scenario, with a ‘top secret’- clearance like process: each voter needs to submit 20 pages of background information, lie detector tests, and financial review, all in advance of voting. This could result in individuals with minor or inconsequential errors in their paperwork to be rejected. Alternatively, imagine the hypothetical “maximum access” end: a scenario with six months of early voting, a stack of ballots available for people to take, and no process to confirm people’s eligibility.  Both scenarios lack balance in our electoral processes.

Most would view either scenario as a bad way to run an election. But each raises this question: where do we strike the balance between access and security? And how do we do it in a country that has a history of gender and racial discrimination around voting and voter registration processes? When we look at a policy, the question is, does its implementation make the voting process more secure? And does it make the voting process more accessible?  Many of these questions fall on the policy that is the entry point to voting in almost every state—the voter registration system.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 created a requirement that each state needed one single voter registration database.  Under the law there is one list per state. No longer do counties solely keep individual lists in paper file folders, or on independent servers that were separated by county, city or municipality. The requirement for a single statewide database allowed states to deal with several challenges. It allowed for greater data security considerations, and, with the right privacy protections, states could more easily discern whether voters moved from one state to another state, moved within a state, or passed away. Ultimately, the requirement allowed states to maintain more accurate voter lists, although the ability of states to review and analyze this data varies from state to state.

After years of study and exploration, there was an even greater understanding of the significance of the statewide voter registration databases. The elections team at the Pew Charitable Trusts proposed the concept that would lead to the Electronic Registration Information Center[“ERIC”], a proposed balance between access and security. ERIC was established in 2012 by state election officials in seven states, with assistance from Pew Charitable Trusts.  From the start, traditionally so-called “conservative” states were paired with traditionally “progressive” states [there is no way to achieve perfect balance, but the approach was clear]. As more states were added to ERIC, the balance was maintained, to carefully avoid both the appearance and reality of ideological tilt. 

Analysis has shown that accurately matching and connecting names to identify duplicate voters is exceedingly difficult, and prior to the ERIC system, some states used some poor data & matching science to maintain voter lists.  The number of people who can live in the same town, have the same name and birthday can be shockingly high.  Additionally, some communities, statistically speaking, have very popular surnames that complicate less sophisticated matching schemes. Think: Smith, Brown, Jones, Garcia, Nguyen, Patel— all common surnames that might complicate a simplified matching system.  The ERIC system spent a lot of time being far more nuanced with how it explored the matches, and how it identified potential duplicates or potential eligible but unregistered voters.  An explainer video shows how the system works.

So, what does the ERIC system do on the security side? ERIC figured out a way, utilizing technology and state policies to ensure that the state driver’s license lists, the best single source of voter and potential voter information, were shared, between member states. ERIC also connected to the state systems that allowed for the death records of individuals to be flagged. ERIC also allows for flags of the Change of Address (COA) system that individuals fill out to forward mail upon moving. The benefit of that information is significant: one of the reasons people appear on multiple voter registration lists is that they move. We don’t have a requirement that people unregister in this country, so when we move inside a state or between states, we don’t remove our registration from our old address.

ERIC can indicate when people move within a state and make sure their registration is moved to their new address, and their old address is cancelled, cleaning up the list. The system can also communicate with other states and identify voters who have moved out permanently, or who might be a ‘snowbird’- usually retired voters with two houses—but who must choose only one of their states as their place of domicile for voter registration purposes. Again, it allows the state to send mailers and appropriately update and maintain their voter registration lists.  It’s important to make sure that the lists are current and accurate, voters have one place where they’re registered to vote, and that the inaccurate information is legally removed.

What does ERIC do on the access side?  Member states know, using the data made available to the ERIC system from state motor vehicle departments, potential voters who are “eligible but unregistered”—or EBUs.  Upon joining ERIC, states are required to mail out official registration forms to everyone on the list who appears to be eligible but was not included on the statewide registration list. Voters would still need to act on that request, but given that the information through ERIC was accurate, the mailings were from the government (and thus more likely to be opened than other registration mailings), the likelihood of registering significant numbers of the EBUs is high.  This also allows for a failsafe for the requirement of the National Voter Registration Act, which requires all eligible individuals to be asked by their DMV whether they are registered to vote. ERIC mailers also ensure that the registration was either a government form, or a link to the official online voter registration site by the state government, increasing the likelihood that the registration forms were filled out accurately and included directly on the rolls (if all the information was accurate and the voter was eligible).

So, what’s going on now after more than a decade of bipartisan success? We’re seeing some states pull out of ERIC because of misinformation and pressure from a small, vocal group of advocates who appear to want to upset the balance.  Some of the misinformation about ERIC seems to be driven by voices promoting the “Big Lie”— or believe that any election innovation that was in place during the 2020 presidential election was suspect.  That appears to be pressuring some public officials to remove their states from ERIC.  Are there complex technical issues internally within the ERIC board that might make the system better?  Perhaps.  But what is more disconcerting are those who want to unwind the original ‘deal’ of ERIC— a legitimate balance of access and security.  Some concerns that have been raised seem to involve limiting or removing the “access” part of the ERIC deal, which is a nonstarter. The system was created to broker compromise, and you can’t get the benefit of one value without the other.  States that have had recent concerns about ERIC appear to forget- they have been members and participants of the system, all along, and their states saw the benefits of ERIC and agreed to join and follow the framework and governing rules that applied. 

So, if there are issues that are emerging, either technical, policy, or personnel, between the member states (or former member states) that don’t implicate the key balance of ERIC, member states should work to find a solution to address them. The ERIC system is complex, sophisticated and took a long time to build. It was further refined by experts who focused on this problem for years and appreciate the complexity of the voter registration system.  As we saw with the Cyber Ninja’s “audit” in Arizona—elections are hard. It is not easy, even for bright technologists, to quickly create robust, accurate, alternative systems that balance these values we hold in free and fair elections. So, we should be very wary of “new” list maintenance systems that show up in these states. The public should also insist that any external contractors working on registration be fervently nonpartisan in their approach.

So, what comes next for the states that have left ERIC? Elections, especially voter registration, are covered by parts of state and federal law, and there are provisions of the Voting Rights Act that can apply.  There are clear requirements from the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) regarding list maintenance and access provisions that allow voters and advocates to better understand what a state has done with their list post-ERIC.  Membership within ERIC also likely made NVRA compliance much easier because the system was built with an understanding of those requirements.  Withdrawing from ERIC without understanding how to institute appropriate NVRA access and list maintenance requirements may prove complicated and expensive for some of these states. 

NVRA makes it clear that for two years, states must preserve and make available “all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.”  States also have to maintain certain voter registration records for at least 22 months following a federal election.  There are mechanisms by which the public will know what is working and what’s not within a state’s voter registration system.  It will be clear whether states’ decision to withdraw from ERIC was sound or not.

The perspectives of ERIC member states of all ideological camps are important. What are we to make of the claims by state leaders withdrawing from ERIC that it’s better to be outside of ERIC than in it?   Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, an ERIC supporter, tweeted, in response to these states’ departures: “States claim they want to combat illegal voting & clean voter rolls – but then leave the best & only group capable of detecting double voting across state lines, [the ERIC system.] Reacting to disinformation they’ve hurt their own state & others while undermining voter confidence.”  Despite the SpongeBob SquarePants meme in the tweet, the Secretary’s framework is serious, direct, and a question that former ERIC members will have to answer to the public on. ERIC’s impact is undeniable.

The numbers speak for themselves. For the calendar year 2022, ERIC identified 2.4 million people who moved between participating states—allowing them to be removed from one state and invited to be added to the new residence. In perhaps the most impressive statistic, ERIC identified 7.3 million people that moved within participating states, thus allowing them to preserve their registration at their new address and end their registration at their old one. This reduces any likelihood of confusion for the voter or the election officials.  200,000 in-state duplicates were removed, and 65K deceased voters were identified and removed from the rolls.  These are real numbers, and they prove that the lists are up to date and secure.  Which begs the question, why are states leaving this system again?  And what system are they putting in its’ place?

Early in ERIC’s existence there were moments of greater concern about whether the system would be balanced. There were also concerns that ERIC would be used for overinclusive purges.  But based on the work of the election officials and the seriousness of the ERIC staff, many of those concerns have faded away.  Many state Leagues within the League of Women Voters worked with their state & local election officials to promote membership in ERIC, and to help the public understand the importance of both the access and security it provided.  The bipartisan approach is key, and any new program that does not meaningfully include voices and leaders with an interest in both access and security should be looked at with suspicion.  The months and years ahead will clarify whether states want to maintain this balance and use the best available tool to add new legitimate voters and remove no longer eligible voters.

Adam Ambrogi serves as Chief of External Affairs of the League of Women Voters of the United States

Jeanette Senecal serves as Senior Director of Mission Impact of the League of Women Voters of the United States

Share this: