Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why State GOP Turned Against ERIC

Trump and Cleta Mitchell are demonizing elections data system Wisconsin joined via 2016 Republican law.

By - Oct 11th, 2023 05:29 pm
Voters at the Humboldt Park Pavilion. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Voters at the Humboldt Park Pavilion. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The creation of the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, was one of those good-government efforts that exemplified democracy as described in civics textbooks. With initial funding from the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, seven states created ERIC in 2012 to improve the accuracy of state voter registration rolls and boost access to voter registration for all citizens. At the time, as many as one in eight voter registrations nationwide was invalid or highly inaccurate, according to Pew, and the lack of coordination between the states made it harder for any one state to fix those errors.

The seven states who started ERIC were Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, but by 2021 membership had grown to to 33 states and the District of Columbia, a group including many red and blue states. Wisconsin joined the system in 2016, with the Legislature passing a law enshrining this in state statutes. Each state (and DC) pays fees and annual dues to finance the system and has a member’s seat on the ERIC Board of Directors.

Republicans backed the law joining ERIC because it was seen as a tool to eliminate potential double voting as people move to a new state and don’t tell the government of their former state they have moved. ERIC is “the best tool available for catching people who have moved,” said Charles Stewart, the director of MIT’s Election Sciences + Data Lab, in a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Stewart has studied election operations and costs for decades.

The entire Republican leadership in the Wisconsin Legislature backed the bill, as Molly Beck has reported. Every Democratic lawmaker opposed the bill, presumably out of fear that the ERIC system might be used as a way to push the issue of voter fraud, on which the two parties were very divided. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill, saying the law “brings Wisconsin elections into the 21st century.”

Nationally ERIC was considered a bipartisan success story. But Republican attitudes toward the program changed with the rise of disinformation pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies. There were claims, for instance, that ERIC was a George Soros creation, because he donates money to the Pew Trust. But the real fear was revealed by Trump, who complained that ERIC’s mission of boosting access for voter registration “pumps the rolls” for Democrats.

An investigation by National Public Radio found that, beginning in January 2022, the far-right website called Gateway Pundit, which has pushed conspiracy theories, began raising questions about ERIC. “NPR’s investigations team analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media posts… by election deniers. We found the Gateway Pundit’s coverage started the far right’s fixation on the program… Roughly a week after the first Gateway Pundit article, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, announced his state would become the first to pull out of ERIC.”

Another key activist was attorney and Bradley Foundation board member Cleta Mitchell, who became infamous for assisting Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. She has since been creating an election denial infrastructure. including a coalition of grassroots groups across the country called the Election Integrity Network. “NPR’s investigation found Mitchell to be a ringleader of sorts for the effort to dismantle ERIC. She even hosted a secret ERIC summit with red state lawmakers last summer, according to documents shared with NPR.”

Since Louisiana, seven other states have left ERIC: Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia, an original founding member. In late September, Wisconsin became another possible deserter, as two Republican legislators, Sen. Duey Stroebel of the Town of Cedarburg and Rep. Ty Bodden of Hilbert released a bill that would overturn the 2016 law and remove Wisconsin from ERIC.

Precisely how many Republicans support this bill is unclear, but Don Millis, the Republican chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told Beck the commission has caught a number of cases of voters casting ballots in two states because of Wisconsin’s membership in ERIC. “ERIC has been instrumental in our ability to uncover election fraud,” he said. “It doesn’t happen a lot but it does happen. To maintain confidence in elections, we need to be able to prosecute double voting when it occurs… it would be a bad idea to remove us from ERIC. To me, it’s just totally counterproductive.”

That’s a signal from Millis that the bipartisan elections commission supports ERIC. And even if it didn’t, it must follow state law creating the system. And if Republicans did pass a bill to overturn the law, Gov. Tony Evers would surely veto it. At this point ERIC has heavy support from Democrats and moderate Republicans like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who warned that without ERIC, states will have “dirtier voter rolls.”

Yet, even if Wisconsin won’t be leaving ERIC (for now), the push by some Republicans to do so shows how radicalized the state has become and how unrelenting is the effort by MAGA extremists to undermine fair elections. It’s about a fear of small-d democracy in a swing state that has been turning increasingly blue in recent elections, and where Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in nine of last 10 elections. A system that makes it easier to vote is the last thing these extremists want.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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