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More Withdrawals From Voter Data Group ERIC Likely

Eight Republican-controlled states so far have cut ties with the multistate consortium, which helps to ensure accurate voter rolls, citing concerns over privacy and transparency.

By Wendy Underhill  |  June 20, 2023

The hottest issue in election administration this summer is whether states should join, leave or remain in ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center.

ERIC was created in 2012 to address a perennial problem all legislators care about: keeping voter rolls clean. Unlike voter ID or Election Day registration, membership in the nonprofit organization, which is composed of member states, has not been a partisan issue—until recently. Resignations by eight Republican-controlled states dropped ERIC membership from 33 states plus Washington, D.C., in 2022 to 25 states plus D.C., after the resignations all take effect. More resignations are likely.

ERIC addresses “a fundamental coordination problem: We have a national electorate but local election administration,” says Michael Morse, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School who has studied ERIC.

ERIC addresses “a fundamental coordination problem: We have a national electorate but local election administration.”

—Michael Morse, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

The problem ERIC addresses is that voter rolls are always in flux. When voters register, they identify their home address, and that determines what local, state and federal races they vote on (as well as myriad special districts).

All’s well if voters stay put—but they don’t. About 13% of Americans moved in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But very few movers notify their previous county or state that they’ve relocated.

It’s not just movers. Young people reach voting age; immigrants become citizens; newly incarcerated people lose their right to vote; people die. And states try to keep up with the changes. ERIC was established as a voluntary interstate voter registration maintenance project with the mission to “help states improve the accuracy of America’s voter rolls, increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens, reduce election costs and increase efficiencies.”

Starting from the top of the mission, clean rolls are the foundation of good elections. Given that there are no legal requirements to tell the government when you changed your address, ERIC is “the best tool available for catching people who have moved,” said Charles Stewart, the director of MIT’s Election Sciences + Data Lab. Stewart has studied election operations and costs for more than two decades.

Improving voter list accuracy also reduces the opportunity for double voting. Morse’s research shows double voting is rare. Nonetheless, he explained inaccurate voter lists “fuel the perception of fraud.”

“States need to share data because there is no other way to tell if people are voting in multiple states; and that is happening, it is not a black swan event,” says J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Fund. “Unless you’re talking across state lines, there will be undetected violations of federal law that prohibit double voting in the same election.”

ERIC members Electronic Registration Information Center


Bias in Reaching Out to Eligible Voters?

It is the second part of ERIC’s mission—to increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens—that has driven at least some of the ERIC exits. Joining ERIC includes a commitment to reaching out to voters who are eligible but unregistered, and ERIC provides reports on who those people might be. It is the state’s responsibility to reach out and offer registration. In fact, when a person moves, he or she leaves behind a now-outdated voter registration in the old state and becomes an eligible but unregistered voter in the new state.

“I believe ERIC has worked well improving the accuracy of Kentucky’s voter rolls, I don’t believe many folks have a problem with that part of its mission,” says Kentucky Rep. Kevin Bratcher (R). “The controversy is its questionable tactics in voter registration.” Bratcher says ERIC critics are suspicious that this outreach is targeted to benefit Democratic-leaning demographics.

There is nothing in ERIC’s mission or processes that indicate a political tilt.

It is an open question whether it is a state’s responsibility to encourage voter registration at all—though it is clear states must provide reasonably convenient registration processes. In a letter to ERIC before its board meeting in March, Ohio Secretary of State and former state lawmaker Frank LaRose (R) asked that the outreach requirement be made optional. His amendment to the bylaws did not meet the threshold for adoption.

“I am alarmed by the exodus of Republican-led states from ERIC. Not only does this hurt the accuracy of their voter rolls, but it reduces the accuracy for the rest of us.”

—Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan

Another point of concern is transparency.

“ERIC is a clever workaround for privacy laws that restrict data collection,” Morse says. It allows states to supplement their voter files, which are less likely to have part of a voter’s Social Security number, with information from their motor vehicle bureau, leading to a more reliable list maintenance process.

Morse says that the use of the confidential data from motor vehicle bureaus has left states in a bind: the National Voter Registration Act requires transparency in how states conduct voter list maintenance activities, while the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act prohibits states from disclosing personal information in motor vehicle records to the public.

Indeed, many states had to address restrictions on sharing data as they approved joining ERIC through legislation.

In at least 24 states, legislation was needed to join ERIC, according to Morse’s data. Some of these bills were permissive—allowing their chief election officials to join interstate compacts to improve voter registration accuracy—while a few specifically required joining ERIC.

In crafting legislation, state-specific data privacy regimens mean there is no one approach. Legislatures may want to consider whether they prefer to delegate decision-making to the secretary of state or state election board, or if they want to be prescriptive.

While ERIC has quietly done its work for almost a dozen years, it’s only been in the last two years that concerns about privacy and transparency, or about the outreach requirement, have surfaced. See coverage from National Public Radio or Governing for more background.

Louisiana was the first state to remove itself from ERIC, doing so in 2022. This year, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia have done so, too.

The resignations so far have come entirely from chief election officials or state boards of elections who had discretionary authority to join (and thus to withdraw from) ERIC. No legislation has yet been the cause of a withdrawal.

That’s not to say there isn’t legislative interest this year. In Arizona, a bill to resign from ERIC was passed by both chambers but vetoed by the governor. Texas lawmakers have sent a bill to the governor’s desk that will lead to exiting ERIC, and a North Carolina bill would prohibit the state from joining ERIC without approval from the General Assembly. In Oklahoma, which has not joined ERIC, a 2023 enactment makes it much harder to do so. Previously, Oklahoma had authorized the state election board to “join multistate voter list maintenance organizations” and mentioned ERIC by name. The reference to ERIC has been removed, and the law clarifies that Oklahoma cannot join any such organizations that require unregistered but eligible voters to be contacted.

On the flipside, California and New York have bills to authorize joining multistate voter list maintenance organizations. That is, ERIC or an equivalent.

What Might the Future Hold?

The need for clean voter rolls has not gone away. If anything, an interest in list maintenance generally is hotter than ever, as seen by the enactments relating to this over the last three years. Some recent enactments have mandated more frequent maintenance activities and required the use of the U.S. Postal Service’s national change of address records along with in-state information, such as death records, prison records and jury lists.

None of that replaces the service ERIC provides to compare voter records across state lines, within each state and with national change of address and Social Security Administration records.

“I am alarmed by the exodus of Republican-led states from ERIC,” says Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D). “Not only does this hurt the accuracy of their voter rolls, but it reduces the accuracy for the rest of us.”

Some academics, such as Morse, have proposed changes to the National Voter Registration Act to sort out the conflict between reliability and transparency when maintaining voter lists.

Texas isn’t waiting for congressional action; it has created a position to develop a replacement for ERIC. Adams, of the Public Interest Legal Fund, is skeptical, at least in the short term.

“There is no replacement right now,” he says. “People are trying and hoping. And I’m hoping for a Lamborghini.”

Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

ERIC: Background and Stats

In 2008, The Pew Charitable Trusts began a 10-year effort that focused largely on voter registration. ERIC was an outgrowth of this initiative. Pew worked for well over two years with participation from a handful of states, equally split between Republican and Democratic control.

The goal was to create a voluntary option for states to compare their lists with sister states. In 2012, ERIC went live as a stand-alone nonprofit organization supported by dues from member states. While it received startup support from Pew during its first year and again in 2019 for one-time technology projects, it accepts no philanthropic funding. It does its work with a staff of three.

ERIC helps states by providing election officials with information on potential inaccuracies in voter lists; these reports can trigger the process of removing voter names, something governed by state and federal law.

To create the reports, ERIC compares records from member states. And to do that, ERIC receives voter registration and motor vehicle department information through a data-protected process. It also uses national change of address records and Social Security Administration death records.

The reports identify voters who appear to be registered in more than one state (or more than once within a state), along with information about voters who have died or moved. Each state then follows its own voter list maintenance protocol. ERIC does not amend any voter registration information, anywhere.

After each federal election, states can also request reports that identify possible illegal voting, such as instances of double voting or votes being cast on behalf of deceased voters. Again, the states do the follow-up.

Since its inception, ERIC has identified 11,847,343 cross-state movers and 1,027,389 in-state duplicates, according to its website. An additional 583,201 records of deceased voters have been spotted as well.

As more states joined, more matches are found. In the first year, when seven states participated, 92,322 cross-state movers were identified; in 2022, the last full year, the number was 2,433,532.

In terms of members, ERIC opened shop with seven states and reached its highwater mark of 33 states plus Washington, D.C., in 2022. Now, with the current resignations, membership stands at 25 states—more than were members in 2020.

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