Conspiracy theory whirlwind threatens to blow Texas out of national program that keeps voter rolls updated
By Natalia Contreras, Votebeat Texas
Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S.
In virtual meetings taking place over a year, right-wing activists and Republican legislators have stoked concern over a multistate coalition that Texas and more than 30 other states use to help clean voter rolls. The majority of their grievances — that it is run by left-wing voter registration activists and funded by George Soros, among other things — were pulled straight from a far-right conspiracy website and are baseless.
Now, lawmakers who regularly attend those meetings have introduced legislation written by the group that would end Texas’s participation in the Electronic Registration Information Center, also known as ERIC.
The bills were introduced despite the efforts of Texas’s elections director, who attended a meeting and offered factual information related to their concerns last April, apparently without success.
Keith Ingram, the elections director for the secretary of state’s office, told the group the program was the only option available to ensure voters aren’t registered or voting in more than one state at the same time. Nonetheless, the activists moved forward with an effort that experts say is set to undermine one of the best election integrity tools available to Texas and other states to prevent election fraud.
“We want to be able to do something and we have a senator that’s willing to help change that or add language or improve or reform ERIC,” said Toni Anne Dashiell last August, referring to Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. Dashiell, the Republican national committeewoman for Texas, organizes the meetings and refers to them as “TAD Talks.”
Shortly after, the group’s ERIC task force — led by Alan Vera, the current Harris County Republican Party ballot security chairman, and Dana Myers, the Texas Republican Party vice-chair — began drafting legislation. Myers declined to comment for this story. Dashiell and Vera did not respond to Votebeat’s requests for comment or to emailed questions about how the effort would improve elections in Texas.
Vera announced during a January meeting of the task force that they had submitted the draft of such a bill to Hughes’ staff for review. Hughes, who attended almost every single one of the virtual meetings, filed legislation with their suggestions as Senate Bill 1070 in February. Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, also a regular speaker in the virtual calls, filed a companion bill in the House. Hughes and Jetton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“Now, there is no evidence that ERIC is doing anything to Texas voter rolls, I want to be clear about that,” Hughes said during a virtual meeting in October. “But we do know, again, that the people running ERIC don’t share our worldview.”
The conservative campaign against ERIC, long considered the gold standard for cleaning voter rolls, began with misinformation published starting last year by a conservative website, The Gateway Pundit, about ERIC’s funding and origins. As conservative doubts grew and ERIC, led by Executive Director Shane Hamlin, attempted to correct the record, activists in some states began pushing Republican officials to withdraw.
Louisiana became the first state to pull out last summer, followed by Alabama in January, after a new secretary of state took office. At an ERIC board meeting last month, officials for some Republican-led states pushed for changes they said were necessary for them to remain members: Eliminating a requirement that member states reach out to eligible but unregistered voters and removing an ex officio board member, former U.S. Department of Justice voting rights lawyer David Becker, who now heads an election-focused nonpartisan nonprofit and has been an outspoken critic of conspiracy theories about elections.
This week, in the wake of the board meeting, three states — Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia — announced they would leave the program. Some officials whose states remain, including Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose of Ohio, say they will also depart if the board doesn’t agree to the requested changes.
Largely due to the organization and advocacy of those attending these virtual meetings — the recordings of which are online — Texas could be next.
Experts say ERIC is among the state’s most helpful tools at preventing the exact type of fraud those who participated in “TAD Talks” profess concern about.
ERIC data from June 2022 helped Texas identify 100,000 in-state duplicate voters and another 100,000 duplicates of people who moved in or out of state, lists sent to counties to investigate. The Texas GOP and several other local and national conservative coalitions have for years demanded the kind of results ERIC has produced, stressing the need to keep voter rolls clean and prevent illegal voting. Supporters of ERIC say efforts to withdraw from the compact undercut that goal.
Former Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican who left office after deciding against running for another term last year, told Votebeat that if states stop using ERIC, the potential for election fraud could increase “exponentially.”
Merrill said that since the program was created in 2012, there have been no instances of vulnerabilities or irregularities associated with it. “Nothing has ever happened. Nothing’s ever been documented. Only these failed claims that have been introduced without any empirical data to back it up whatsoever,” Merrill said. “Why would you want to eliminate this? That tool has helped us be in a position to prosecute those people who have violated the trust and confidence of the process. And there is no other system in the United States at this time that matches that.”
But the Gateway Pundit’s campaign against ERIC has resonated in conservative circles.
In addition to unfounded speculation about Soros, the fringe site has also claimed that ERIC shares people’s personal data with unauthorized third parties and that it is a leftist scheme to enroll ineligible voters. These claims have taken deep root, and former President Donald Trump openly celebrated the announcements of departing states this week.
The TAD Talks group in Texas first met almost three months after the Gateway Pundit began focusing on ERIC. By its second meeting, they were joined by Keith Ingram, the Texas Secretary of State’s elections division director. In no uncertain terms, he told them that ERIC was crucial to keeping Texas’s voter rolls clean and no alternative to the program existed. He also addressed a list of their concerns about funding, information sharing, and data security.
“Without ERIC, we wouldn’t have this cross-state data. We wouldn’t have the ability to find people who voted twice, or who voted after they were deceased,” Ingram told them firmly. “And we found duplicate voters in Texas as well, and we’re going to be prosecuting those. But all of that comes from the ERIC data.”
In the moment, the group appeared receptive. Dashiell, the Republican National Committeewoman for Texas responded: “Well, that’s incredible. Very good, Keith. Thank you. Very important information.”
Then, they essentially ignored him, meeting again months later and reintroducing the same false talking points Ingram had corrected. In January, the state party included an effort “to replace [ERIC] with a trustworthy system” that would ensure “only qualified and legitimate voters are voting” in the party’s legislative priorities for this year’s session.
“For those of you who want to explain ERIC to others who may not know: that is the cozily voter roll purging system that Texas is signed into. However I’m actually going to call it ‘Everybody Realized that this Is Corrupt.’ That’s what ERIC stands for,” Myers, the Texas GOP vice chair, said as she announced the legislative priorities during an election integrity gathering at the Texas Capitol in January hosted by conservative coalition Texas First. Myers declined to comment for this story.
Russ Ramsland, a Texas-based Republican businessman also known for spreading election conspiracy theories, was a featured speaker that day. The event was live streamed and promoted online by The America Project — a well-funded organization led by Trump allies Michael Flynn and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, both known for spreading election fraud conspiracy theories. Myers also did a presentation with inaccurate information about ERIC in February at the Texas Federation of Republican Women Legislative Day event.
Almost none of what the so-called “TAD Talks” participants say about ERIC is true. Rather than a Soros-funded group run by liberal activists, it is a nonprofit organization paid for and managed by the member states.
“Organizations like ERIC have sought to bolster access and confidence in our electoral processes by facilitating secure, interstate data sharing to ensure more accurate voter rolls. There’s broad bipartisan agreement by state and local election officials that this system works and has improved our elections over the last decade,” said Trey Grayson, former Kentucky secretary of state and a Republican. He said he was “deeply troubled to see politics and disinformation get in the way of best practices.”
Members of ERIC agree to send their full state voter rolls to ERIC every 60 days, along with records from a state identification agency. In Texas, that’s the Department of Motor Vehicles. That state data must include identifying information, if available, for every voter, such as an address, partial Social Security number, and phone number. ERIC then uses all of the data provided by its member states to find matches on multiple data points, suggesting people who may be registered in more than one state. It also identifies those who have died or moved, and flags flawed or incomplete registrations for correction by state officials. But it doesn’t control or manage state voter rolls.
ERIC does not email sensitive voter data and passwords back and forth and does not store it all on an unprotected server. It follows specific and extensive security protocols, which are detailed in its bylaws, and a board of cybersecurity experts advise the program as part of its Privacy and Technology Advisory Board.
Texas has been a member of the program since 2020. Of the $1.5 million that Texas allocates annually for the program, approximately $115,000 of that goes to ERIC to pay for membership dues. The rest goes to postage, mailing, and printing costs the state pays to send invitations to people whom ERIC identifies as eligible voters but who are not yet registered, something ERIC requires its member states to do.
While the price tag might seem high, experts tell Votebeat the program is worth the cost: It would cost the state substantially more money to access on its own the type of national data ERIC uses.
ERIC covers the costs of the subscription to the Social Security death data and the National Change of Address data, which for non-ERIC members could amount several hundred thousand dollars more per year. In addition, in order to maintain these subscriptions, non-ERIC members would have to spend more money to meet federal data handling requirements.
Still, for the GOP task force leading the effort to get rid of ERIC, the $1.5 million price tag is too high. Their solution was to include a price ceiling in the legislation they wrote for Hughes.
The bill requires the state to use a “private sector data system,” and restricts costs to begin such a program to $100,000. Ongoing costs may not exceed “$1 for each voter identified.” The bill also requires such a system to identify people who have been convicted of a felony and says the secretary of state may not provide information to such a system that “is not found in a voter roll and necessary to identify voters.”
It is unclear what alternative to ERIC they think would meet those specific requirements, and neither Hughes nor Jetton has publicly identified one. Texas law requires the state to participate in a multi-state information sharing program to clean its voter rolls, said Sam Taylor, the spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state. Taylor said the office isn’t aware of any system comparable to ERIC, though “we are open to learning about other potentially viable, cost-effective alternatives,” he said.
A smattering of activist groups have publicly signaled interest in creating a replacement for ERIC, though none appears to have access to the breadth of data ERIC uses. At least one option Dashiell’s group considered is funded by MyPillow CEO and well known election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
At a meeting of the task force in February, Vera said they’ve been “evaluating” half a dozen options in the private sector, which he says can do more than what ERIC does and are more affordable, though he offered little evidence of either assertion.
He suggested using a system initially funded by Lindell called Omega4America or a program he referred to as “Eagle AI.” Without offering more detail, Vera told participants the Eagle AI program had been demonstrated at the Capitol last month, an assertion Votebeat has been unable to verify.
Vera said that at a GOP event, the Eagle AI team had presented “some stunning examples of the unacceptable condition of the voter rolls in Harris County. It was obvious to everybody present that ERIC is not helping.”
Active in election integrity issues with the Republican Party for decades, Vera is also known for frequently challenging the legitimacy of registered voters in Harris County. The Harris County Attorney’s Office announced last summer it was investigating allegations that Vera’s election integrity group — the Texas Election Network — had been knocking on doors, verifying voters’ addresses, and asking them to sign affidavits.
Vera did not answer Votebeat’s questions about who runs the programs he has suggested to replace ERIC, how those programs store data, or the matching methodology used.
A nonprofit run by former Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, a prominent purveyor of election misinformation, is also considering attempting to create a new form of ERIC, according to one of the nonprofit’s directors, Cochise County Recorder David Stevens.
Finchem recently repurposed a research nonprofit he founded in 2018 to focus on election policy, renaming it the Election Fairness Institute.
Stevens told Votebeat that there are “a few visions” for what the nonprofit will do, but one is “potentially a nationwide voter registration type repository,” he said.
“We will see what kind of work comes around,” he said.
Finchem and Stevens did not return calls seeking more information this week.
Some who have already tried to find or create a private sector system or nonprofit to replace ERIC told Votebeat it would be “impossible” to do.
While data from sources such as the U.S. Postal Service can give indicators of when a voter should be removed from the rolls, governments do not give out enough data on individual voters to identify hard matches, said Matt Braynard, a former director for the Trump campaign who now runs Look Ahead America, a national nonprofit that is advocating for tighter voter roll laws in states.
“Only the governments, with their access to very capable tools, like knowing someone’s Social Security number or someone’s full birthday, can do this,” he said. The type of matching used by programs without such data “sometimes is helpful, but in cases like this it is useless.”
Look Ahead America found this out firsthand recently, as it is using the U.S. Postal Service data in 10 states to produce lists of thousands of voters in each state who may have moved and therefore may not be eligible — one of the functions ERIC provides. With their more limited access to data, Look Ahead America had no way of claiming for certain that the voters should be removed from the rolls and their efforts were ignored by county clerks, Braynard said.
“That was a difficult nightmare, and in a lot of cases, the county clerk just said, ‘Screw you guys,’ ” he said.
And some policy experts say obtaining the kind of additional data the Texas Republicans leading the effort and Hughes are seeking, which aims to identify people with felony convictions, would certainly cost more than $100,000 to compile.
“Building something up like that would have fewer members and that would also try to cover areas or groups of ineligible voters that haven’t been covered by any sort of interstate system like that before is going to be a real challenge,” said Daniel Griffith, senior director of policy at Secure Democracy USA.
Demands from conservatives to keep the voter rolls clean and updated have been made for years — long before Trump spread lies about the outcome of the 2020 election.
In 2018, before Texas allocated the funding needed to join ERIC, a coalition of more than 100 conservatives in the state — including election fraud activist Laura Pressley — sent two letters to Gov. Greg Abbott demanding that Texas use a cross-state data sharing program to prevent non-citizens from voting. The coalition, formed by the Smith County–based Grassroots America political action committee, even suggested the state use ERIC or the now-defunct Kansas Crosscheck system. But now, Grassroots America has also joined the calls for Texas to withdraw from ERIC.
Merrill, the former Alabama secretary of state, told Votebeat he’s disappointed to see the number of conservative leaders who have promoted election integrity in their states but are now choosing to not use ERIC, a tool he described as “one of the greatest” for “election integrity, transparency and accountability.” Alabama had been a member of ERIC since 2016.
“You cannot hear me say this enough: If you want to eliminate ERIC, then that’s your right. But if you eliminate it, what are you going to replace it with? Because there is no mechanism in place today that accomplishes the goal that ERIC accomplishes,” Merrill said.
“If they say that they’ve got something, well then show me the money. Show me that it’s successful. Show me the beef.”
Votebeat reporter Jen Fifield contributed to this story.
Natalia Contreras covers election administration and voting access for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at email@example.com
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