Fri, 31 Mar 2023

ATLANTA (AP) - Election officials from states enrolled in a bipartisan effort to ensure accurate voter lists decided Friday against making rule changes that had been pushed by Republicans amid conspiracies targeting the group, prompting more GOP-leaning states to leave.

The Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC, has a record of combating voter fraud by identifying those who have died or moved between states. Yet it also has drawn suspicion among some Republican state leaders, after a series of online stories surfaced last year questioning the center's funding and purpose.

Earlier this month, Republican election officials from Florida, Missouri and West Virginia said they planned to withdraw from the group, joining Louisiana and Alabama. Former President Donald Trump, on social media, has called on every Republican-led state to leave, characterizing it as a "terrible Voter Registration System that 'pumps the rolls' for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up."

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On Friday, representatives from the group's member states met remotely for about three hours to discuss the changes promoted by Republicans, which included dropping a requirement for members to mail notices to people who are eligible but not registered to vote. Currently, ERIC is comprised of 32 states and the District of Columbia, but that number will drop once Alabama, Florida, Missouri and West Virginia formally depart later this year.

After Friday's meeting, Republican secretaries of state in Iowa and Ohio became the latest to say they would pull out.

"The action Ohio is taking today follows nearly a year of good faith, bipartisan efforts to reform ERIC's oversight and services," Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who is considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2024, wrote in a letter. "Unfortunately, these attempts to save what could be an unparalleled election integrity service have fallen short."

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said he would recommend to the governor and Legislature that the state end its membership in ERIC because of the organization's decision not to amend the membership agreement. He also said the departure of several other states makes the network less valuable.

ERIC's executive director, Shane Hamlin, said in an emailed statement that "serious consideration" was given to the proposals but the members voted to maintain the program's current requirements.

"We hope all states will choose to be members of ERIC, as it is the most effective tool available to help ensure voter rolls are as accurate as possible and to detect possible cases of illegal voting," Hamlin said.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, a Republican, will push ahead with the state's plans to leave the system, spokesperson Mike Queen said after Friday's meeting.

The departures have frustrated some state election officials who remain involved in the effort.

"It's notable that the states at the forefront of these attacks, who have a newfound desire to opt out of sending eligible citizens information on how to register to vote, are led by Republican politicians who are actively trying to curry favor from their party's extremists and, in most cases, Trump himself, to further their own future aspirations for higher office," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, in a statement.

The states' departures threaten to undermine a voluntary effort that has stood for more than a decade as the only national system that helps states identify voters who are not eligible to cast a ballot.

The system works by states sharing certain data through secure channels, allowing election officials to identify and remove people from voter rolls who have died or moved to other states. ERIC also helps states identify and ultimately prosecute people who vote in multiple states.

The system has been credited in Maryland with identifying some 66,000 potentially deceased voters and 778,000 people who may have moved out of state since 2013. In Georgia, officials said nearly 100,000 voters no longer eligible to vote in the state had been removed based on data provided by ERIC.

One conspiracy targeting the system claims that billionaire philanthropist George Soros funded it. While the voter data-sharing system did receive initial funding from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, that money was separate from funding provided to Pew by a Soros-affiliated organization that went to an unrelated effort, Hamlin said. The system has since been funded through annual dues by member states.

It appeared likely that other Republican-led states could also leave. Alaska "will continue to review its membership in ERIC and we do not intend to make any immediate decisions," Division of Elections spokesperson Tiffany Montemayor said in an email to the AP.

In Texas, state election officials announced plans last week to conduct their own "interstate voter registration crosscheck program," although it's unclear how they plan to do that and how effective such an effort would be, especially if it involves only a handful of states. Meanwhile, legislation has been introduced that would compel Texas to withdraw from ERIC.

Florida and Texas, with their combined 30.5 million active registered voters, would pose a considerable loss to the data-sharing effort.

With no national voter registration clearinghouse, ERIC is the only data-sharing program among the states. It was started in 2012 by seven states and was bipartisan from the beginning, with four of the founding states led at the time by Republicans.

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. New York is another high-population state that does not belong to the system.

One change sought by Republicans was removing what they characterize as partisan influences within ERIC. They had targeted David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Becker, who was involved in developing the ERIC system at Pew, has held one of two non-voting seats on the board. The other has been vacant.

A group of Republicans, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, defended Becker in a public letter, blasting attacks against him as disinformation.

Becker, who now leads the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said this week that he has informed ERIC that he will not accept re-nomination to the board. Hamlin said ERIC member states decided Friday to eliminate both non-voting seats on the board.

"The states that remain in ERIC have bravely fought back against disinformation and election denial, and my hope is that they will continue to do so, and support their local election officials who rely upon the ERIC data, as we head into 2024," Becker said in a social media post this week.

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By CHRISTINA A. CASSIDY and JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press

Smyth reported from Columbus, Ohio. Associated Press writers Scott McFetridge in Des Moines, Iowa; Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia; and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska contributed to this report.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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