GOP states abandon bipartisan voting integrity group, yielding to conspiracy theories
By Neil Vigdor
First to leave was Louisiana, followed by Alabama.
Then, in one fell swoop, Florida, Missouri and West Virginia announced earlier this week that they would drop out of a bipartisan network of about 30 states that helps maintain accurate voter rolls, one that has faced intensifying attacks from election deniers and right-wing media.
Ohio may not be far behind, according to a letter sent to the group Monday from the state’s chief election official, Frank LaRose. LaRose and his counterparts in the five states that left the group are all Republicans.
For more than a year, the Electronic Registration Information Center, a nonprofit organization known as ERIC, has been hit with false claims from allies of former President Donald Trump who say it is a voter registration vehicle for Democrats that received money from George Soros, the liberal billionaire and philanthropist, when it was created in 2012.
Trump even chimed in Monday, urging all Republican governors to sever ties with the group, baselessly claiming in a Truth Social media post that it “pumps the rolls” for Democrats.
The Republicans who announced their states were leaving the group cited complaints about governance issues, chiefly that it mails newly eligible voters who have not registered before federal elections. They also accused the group of opening itself up to a partisan influence.
In an interview Tuesday, Jay Ashcroft, a Republican who is Missouri’s secretary of state, said that the group had balked at his state’s calls for reforms, some of which were expected to be weighed by the group’s board of directors at a meeting March 17. He denied that the decision to pull out was fueled by what the organization and its defenders have described as a right-wing smear campaign.
“It’s not like I was antagonistic toward cleaning our voter rolls,” Ashcroft said.
Shane Hamlin, the group’s executive director, did not comment about particular complaints of the states in an email Tuesday, but referred to an open letter that he wrote March 2 saying that the organization had been the subject of substantial misinformation regarding the nature of its work and who has access to voter lists.
Defenders of the group lamented the departures, saying they would weaken the group’s information-sharing efforts and undermine it financially because of lost dues. And, they said, the defections conflict with the election integrity mantra that has motivated Republicans since Trump’s defeat in 2020.
Republicans haven’t always been so sour about the work of the coalition, which Louisiana left in 2022.
It was just last year that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida mentioned the group’s benefit to his state, which he described as useful for checking voter rolls during a news conference announcing the highly contentious arrests of about 20 people on voter fraud charges. He was joined then by Cord Byrd, Florida’s secretary of state, a fellow Republican who, on Monday, was expressing a much different opinion. In an announcement that Florida was leaving the group, Byrd said that the state’s concerns about data security and “partisan tendencies” had not been addressed.
“Therefore, we have lost confidence in ERIC,” Byrd said.
Representatives for DeSantis, who is considering a Republican run for president, did not respond to a request for comment.
LaRose, in Ohio, also had a stark shift in tone: After recently describing the group to reporters as imperfect but still “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have,” by Monday he was also calling for reforms and put the group on notice.
“Anything short of the reforms mentioned above will result in action up to and including our withdrawal from membership,” LaRose wrote. “I implore you to do the right thing.”
The complaints about partisanship seem centered on David Becker, a former Justice Department lawyer who helped develop the group and is a nonvoting board member. Ashcroft said he didn’t think that Becker, a former director of the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts who has vocally debunked election fraud claims, including disputing Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, should be on the board.
Becker is the founder and director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, another nonpartisan group that has been attacked by election deniers.
“There’s truth and there’s lies,” Becker said on a video call with reporters Tuesday. “I will continue to stand for the truth.”
Hamlin vowed that the organization would “continue our work on behalf of our remaining member states in improving the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increasing access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.”
While some Republican states are ending their relationship with the group, California, the nation’s most populous state, could potentially join its ranks under a bill proposed by a Democratic state lawmaker. But in Texas, a Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill with the opposite intention.
Still, Sam Taylor, a spokesperson for Texas’ Republican secretary of state, said in an email Tuesday that “we are not currently aware of any system comparable to ERIC, but are open to learning about other potentially viable, cost-effective alternatives.”
New York, another heavily populated state, is also not a member of the group.
Seven states started the organization more than a decade ago. It charges new members a one-time fee of $25,000 and annual dues that are partly based on the citizen voting age population in each state. The Pew Charitable Trusts provided seed funding to the group, but that money was separate from donations that it had received from Soros, according to the website PolitiFact.
Shenna Bellows, a Democrat who is Maine’s secretary of state, said in an interview Tuesday that the group had been particularly helpful in identifying voters who have died or may no longer live in the state, which became a member in 2021.
“We have a lot of Mainers who retire to Florida for example,” Bellows said.
Bellows called the recent defections “tragic” and said that her office had received several inquiries from residents who had read criticism of the group online.
“Unfortunately, this move by our colleagues in Florida and elsewhere to leave ERIC in part because of misinformation being spread by election deniers deprives all of us of the ability to effectively clean our voter rolls and fight voter fraud,” she said.