GOP-led states plan new voter data systems to replace one they rejected
A close look at how ERIC was set up and how it operates suggests that building any new interstate partnership from scratch will be a major challenge. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
So far this year, seven states, all Republican-led, have left the Electronic Registration Information Center, an interstate compact for sharing voter registration data, and more could follow.
Amid the exodus, some states, including Texas and Virginia, have said they plan to create their own data-sharing networks to replace ERIC.
Pledging to build a new system gives these states a way to rebut charges that leaving ERIC will make it harder for them to keep their voter rolls up to date. ERIC provides its members with what they say is invaluable and highly accurate data on voters who have moved or died.
But a close look at how ERIC was set up and how it operates suggests that building any new interstate partnership from scratch will be a major challenge, at the very least requiring significant time and resources.
Underscoring the point are previous failed efforts by states to create similar pacts: Two appear to have barely gotten off the ground, and one ultimately collapsed under the weight of its faulty data and lax security measures.
“It is possible, but very, very difficult,” said David Becker, the election administration expert who had a leading role in founding ERIC over a decade ago and now runs the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research.
“A group of states could come together, and, after several years and millions of dollars of investment, create something that is almost as good as ERIC. And you’d have to wonder, why would you do that?”
More likely, it appears, is that the states quitting ERIC are simply leaving themselves without an effective system for sharing information, leading to less accurate and up-to-date voter rolls.
That will not only make it harder for election administrators to catch the rare cases of illegal voting. It also will hugely complicate their efforts to ensure smooth and well-run elections across the board — at a time when Americans’ trust in voting systems is already dangerously low.
On May 11, Virginia became the most recent state to leave ERIC, echoing the same false charges of political bias spread by right-wing activists that led the other states — Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, and Alabama — to depart earlier this year (Louisiana left last year). Some of these states also balked at ERIC’s mandate that they reach out to eligible voters and encourage them to register.
But Virginia officials emphasized that they were not giving up on the idea of an interstate data-sharing compact. Getting voter registration information from other states can allow election officials to identify voters who may have moved out of state, and, after fully verifying their identities, remove them from the rolls.
“We will pursue other information arrangements with our neighboring states and look to other opportunities to partner with states in an apolitical fashion,” Virginia Elections Commissioner Susan Beals wrote in a letter informing ERIC of the state’s decision.
Asked about the effort, the Virginia Department of Elections responded with a statement: “Virginia has been participating in talks with other states for several months about creating new state-to-state data-sharing relationships for the purpose of identifying potential double voters.”
A spokesperson declined to answer a list of detailed questions about how the program might work.
Texas is working on similar plans. The state is required by law to participate in a data-sharing program with other states, and it’s currently still an ERIC member.
But in March, the secretary of state’s office announced it was shifting its long-time elections director into a new post to create an alternative inter-state system. And a bill to withdraw from ERIC and have the state build its own new system, or contract with a private-sector firm for $100,000 or less, passed the state House May 23 and appears headed for passage in the Senate.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, the author of the bill, said in early May that the new system could be in place by Sept. 1, when his measure would go into effect if passed.
“We are actively researching options for a crosscheck system right now,” Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for the Texas secretary of state’s office said via email.
Pierce declined to answer a list of detailed questions about how the program might work.
A spokesman for Hughes did not respond to a request for comment on the program.
But given the enormous data and security challenges that went into the creation of ERIC — which was conceived in 2009 but wasn’t up and running until three years later — it appears doubtful that building a system that provides states with comparably useful voter information can be done on anything close to Hughes’ timeline and as cheaply as the measure requires, if it can be done at all.
First, experts say, any useful data-sharing system needs to include records from state motor vehicle departments, because that data includes identifiers that don’t typically appear on voter-registration records, including a person’s full birthdate, their driver’s license number, the last four digits of their Social Security number, and more.
Without that level of detail, attempts to match records will produce an extremely high rate of false positives, because lots of people have the same first name, last name, and birthday. (Sen. Rick Scott of Florida was purged from the rolls in 2006 after election administrators wrongly concluded he had died, thanks to exactly this error.)
But, because of privacy concerns, states protect motor vehicles department data very closely. ERIC only was able to get access to it after establishing an extensive set of cybersecurity protocols that experts say would be difficult to replicate, including double one-way hashing — essentially, a code to disguise sensitive data in case of a hack — and secure, dedicated domestic servers.
Then, there’s the problem of how to use the data.
With so many different identifiers, finding a potential match involves comparing multiple records, then conducting a sophisticated statistical analysis to determine the probability that the records actually belong to the same person.
ERIC’s system was developed by Jeff Jonas, one of the world’s leading data scientists, and a former IBM Fellow — a title the company calls its “pre-eminent technical distinction,” given to “the best and brightest of our best and brightest.”
Finally, there’s the need to attract red, blue, and purple states as members. Any system that only has one will be far less effective, because the number of states with which it can share data will be limited.
With this in mind, ERIC’s founders consciously included rules to appeal to both sides.
For red states concerned about election integrity, ERIC provided data that could help officials pare their rolls of ineligible voters. And for blue states concerned about expanding access, ERIC offered something else: A way to identify a state’s pool of eligible but unregistered voters, and a requirement that the state contact these potential voters and urge them to register. (This was the requirement that played a role in the recent departures of several red states — suggesting that the balance that ERIC sought to strike may be hard to maintain in an era when some red-state officials openly disdain efforts to expand access.)
In addition, ERIC’s board and executive committee are always bipartisan, and its chair alternates each year between election directors from a red state and a blue state.
The bottom line: Replicating what ERIC built would be a major technical, scientific, administrative and political challenge, even for a state committed to making it work.
“It’s really hard to stand up (a new system) on your own,” said Becker. “Because, one, you probably can’t get the data you need, and two, you’re probably not going to be able to afford to take the time to build the governance structure and technology that you need to make use of that data.”
A cautionary tale
An example already exists of what’s likely to happen if organizers of an interstate data-sharing system are unable or unwilling to invest the time and care needed to make it work effectively.
In 2005, Kansas election officials, working with their counterparts in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri, created the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck, often called Crosscheck, to help identify voters who were registered in multiple states.
When Kris Kobach became Kansas secretary of state in 2011, he expanded the program, and by 2014 it had 29 members.
But Crosscheck’s approach was badly flawed. The program didn’t require motor vehicles department data, and it flagged voter registrations as potential duplicates if the first name, last name, and birthdate all matched, inevitably producing huge numbers of false positives. States then had to wade through reams of Crosscheck data to weed these out.
“Crosscheck data is prone to false positives since the initial matching is only conducted using first name, last name, and date of birth,” Virginia election administrators reported in 2015. “The need to greatly refine and analyze Crosscheck data has required significant (elections) staff resources.”
In some cases, states failed to identify false positives sent by Crosscheck, and removed large numbers of eligible voters from the rolls.
There were also reports that raised questions about Crosscheck’s handling of private voter data. A 2018 lawsuit filed by the ACLU charged that Crosscheck’s lax security measures had violated voters’ right to privacy. As part of a settlement the following year, the program was shuttered. It hasn’t been in operation since.
More failed efforts
With Crosscheck offline, some of its members began exploring other ways to share data.
In 2020, Indiana passed a bill that allowed the state to formally withdraw from Crosscheck. But because state officials were reluctant to join ERIC — already Republicans had begun to falsely suggest the group was biased against them — the measure called for the creation of the Indiana Data Enhancement Association, or IDEA, a new system in which Indiana would partner with its neighbors to share data.
IDEA never got off the ground. All four of Indiana’s neighbors — Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan — were at the time ERIC members (Ohio was among the states that left this year), making it unlikely that they would have been interested in joining a new compact.
There are also signs that the bill’s drafters lacked expertise in data-matching. IDEA treats it as partial evidence that a voter is registered in multiple states if their driver’s license number or address matches with another state’s records. But experts say another state’s data would never include Indiana driver’s license numbers, which are closely protected, or Indiana addresses.
In August 2020, a federal judge ruled that Indiana’s procedure for removing voters from the rolls violated federal voting law by failing to give voters sufficient notice before removal. Since IDEA would have used the same procedure, the ruling, which was upheld on appeal the following year, effectively blocked the program from moving forward.
“We would have no problem with the state setting up something that followed federal law and somehow getting a bunch of other states to go along with it,” said Julia Vaughn, the executive director of Common Cause Indiana, which brought the lawsuit against the state. “But good luck doing that with one individual state with no real expertise in this, and no reputation as some entity that other states should trust their voter registration lists with.”
Asked about the short-lived effort, Lindsey Eaton, a spokesperson for the Indiana secretary of state’s office, didn’t respond directly.
“IDEA never launched in Indiana,” Eaton said via email.
The author of the bill that created IDEA, Sen. Greg Walker, did not respond to an inquiry about efforts to launch the program. His staff said he was on vacation.
New Hampshire election officials confronted the same issue with Crosscheck’s demise. A large share of the Granite State’s population has relocated from neighboring states, making an interstate system especially useful there.
Again, there was reluctance to join ERIC, despite a push for it from some lawmakers. At a 2019 hearing, Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, today the secretary of state, raised the idea of New Hampshire instead creating its own program to collaborate with other states.
Scanlan’s boss at the time, then-Secretary of State Bill Gardner, suggested New Hampshire could team up with Massachusetts and Maine to find voters who are double registered.
“We could get states to come together,” Gardner said. “It appears it’s the only option.”
That never panned out. Maine joined ERIC in 2021, and Massachusetts followed last year.
Asked whether New Hampshire ever tried to create a new system, Anna Sventek, a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, did not respond directly.
“Nothing is in the works,” Sventek said via email, adding that the state would still be interested in joining such a system “should the opportunity arise.”
Whitney Downard contributed to this report.
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