March 17, 2023
Fredreka Schouten

Ohio becomes sixth state to leave voting integrity group targeted by Trump and conservative groups

Ohio on Friday became the latest state to leave an obscure multi-state consortium that aims to help maintain accurate voter rolls but has become a growing target for conservative groups.

Ohio’s departure from the nonprofit group, Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, marks the fourth state to resign from the organization this month. In all, six states run by Republicans have withdrawn from the organization in the last year.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, cited the defeat at a Friday board meeting of several proposals that he said would have improved data security and reduced partisan influence in the organization.

In a letter announcing the resignation, LaRose said ERIC “has chosen repeatedly to ignore demands to embrace reforms that would bolster confidence in its performance, encourage growth in its membership and ensure not only its present stability but also its durability.”

Three other states Florida, Missouri and West Virginia – left the organization en masse on a single day earlier in March.

Other Republican-led states could follow. Bills pending in Texas would remove the state from ERIC, and election officials there say they have begun to work to develop their own system.

The attacks on the group – founded in 2012 by seven states as a way to update voter registration rolls, encourage voter registration and thwart potential voter fraud – underscore how deeply distrust of the 2020 results – and the mechanics of administering elections – has penetrated conservative circles.

The controversy swirling around the group also prompted David Becker – a founder of ERIC – to announce this week that he was resigning his non-voting position on the group’s board after conservatives claimed his presence had injected partisanship in the group.

On Friday, Becker told reporters that some state election officials “are succumbing” to lies pushed by “propagandists.”

“All the claims about ERIC are … demonstrably, provably false,” he said.

Critics, such as the conservative legal activist group Judicial Watch, have cast ERIC as “swelling” voter registration rolls because member states must send out information encouraging eligible residents to register to vote. And they have sought to link the organization to billionaire financier George Soros, a frequent target of right-wing groups.

ERIC is funded by the dues paid by member states, officials there say.

On March 6, the same day that three states left ERIC, former President Donald Trump – the chief proponent of the falsehood that voter fraud contributed to his 2020 defeat – urged all Republicans governors to end their participation with the group, saying it “pumps the rolls” for Democrats.

In an interview Friday with CNN, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican who withdrew his state earlier this month, said ERIC bears the blame for the spate of departures. Among his chief concerns, he said: Members states are required to send out notices encouraging eligible residents to register to vote but he said sharing data on vote history – a tool to catch whether someone voted in two or more states in an election – is optional.

“They were saying it was more important to add people to the voters rolls … than it was to go after people we knew were cheating,” he said.

Election experts say ERIC is currently the best tool available to perform interstate crosschecks because government agencies have unique access to key records – such as those maintained by motor vehicle departments – to track the movement of individuals across states and accurately identify voters who might have similar names.

“This is clearly an example of disinformation,” said Trey Grayson, a Republican and former Kentucky secretary of state who has defended the integrity of elections. “I find it incredibly frustrating that there’s been this attempt to undermine an organization that’s doing a good job.”

On the same day that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration pulled the state out of the consortium, officials in Pinellas County, Florida, arrested a 59-year-old man on charges that he had voted in Virginia and in Florida in the 2020 general election. Officials there said the ERIC data had detected the double voting.

In an interview with CNN the day after the arrest, Dustin Chase, Pinellas County’s deputy supervisor of elections, said there’s “obviously a political side” to the fight over ERIC “that we don’t want to get into.” But he described ERIC as “a tool we used to maintain integrity in the voter rolls.”

“We’re looking to the legislature to tell us what’s next … in order for us to maintain the voter rolls,” he added.

Shane Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director, declined a CNN interview request but said in an email that the member states gave “serious consideration … to proposals for change” at Friday’s board meeting but in the end voted to maintain the current rules.

“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,” he wrote. “It also remains an important tool for providing voter registration information to potentially eligible voters.”

Many Republicans have previously defended ERIC. LaRose earlier this year described it as “one of the best fraud-fighting tools” to catch people trying to vote in multiple states.

In his Friday letter, LaRose said the organization has opted to “double-down on poor strategic decisions, which have only resulted in the transformation of a previously bipartisan organization to one that appears to favor only the interests of one political party.”

Some of the complaints from activists have centered on Becker’s role as an ex-officio board member. Becker, who has been a prominent critic of Trump’s stolen election claims, helped found the group during his tenure at the Pew Charitable Trusts. A foundation linked to Soros provided money to Pew, but it was earmarked for a separate project unrelated to ERIC, an independent fact check found.

Laleh Ispahani, an official with Soros’ Open Society Foundations, said in a statement to CNN that the Soros groups have “never funded” ERIC. She said the Foundations gave $1.2 million to support work by Pew’s former Center on States division from 2009 to 2011, which researched modernizing voter registration and information systems.

This week, prominent Republicans involved in administering elections – including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – signed a public letter defending Becker and the Center for Election Innovation and Research, the nonpartisan organization that he runs day-to-day.

Friday was Becker’s last day on the ERIC board.