by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is a nonprofit corporation of member states with a stated goal to “improve the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.”
The interstate alliance can be a valuable tool in helping North Carolina clean its voter registration rolls. However, ERIC has failed to address concerns over its leadership and data-handling practices adequately. North Carolina can respond to those continued concerns by either updating laws on data privacy or withdrawing from the program.
One vexing problem election boards face is maintaining clean voter registration rolls, which the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) says “reduces the possibility for poll worker error and decreases opportunities for fraud.”
List maintenance is not easy. Election officials have to remove registrations for a variety of reasons. People move without informing election officials. Some registered voters die, while others become ineligible due to felony convictions.
Maintaining clean election rolls is critical to election integrity and voter confidence in elections. Without such integrity, people’s legal, legitimate votes could be cancelled out by illegitimate votes, erasing citizens’ most important tool for participating in the democratic process.
To help its list maintenance, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) joined Interstate Crosscheck, an interstate consortium based in Kansas, to share data on interstate movers between the 28 member states. Unfortunately, that program stopped operating after a 2017 Homeland Security audit found “security vulnerabilities.”
ERIC, a consortium of red and blue states, also helps states with voter list maintenance but with better data security:
It accomplishes those goals through systematic sharing of data between member states and from national sources such as the US Social Security Administration’s death index and data from the US Postal Service to member states. The data shared includes names, addresses, dates of birth, and the last four digits of social security numbers. All personal data are encrypted to help prevent the kinds of security breaches that had plagued the Crosscheck program.
Conservatives lauded ERIC’s ability to help states clean voter rolls and prevent election fraud. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis noted in 2020, “If you actually vote in [two states] in a primary or in a general election, we have the ability to match those records through the ERIC system for most states now.”
That is why groups that advocate for great election integrity, such as Locke and the Heritage Foundation, have supported states joining ERIC. The General Assembly provided for a “one-time analysis” of North Carolina’s voter registration data through ERIC as part of the 2022 budget (section 26.1). As part of a public records request, SBE staff informed me that they plan to join ERIC formally “by mid-year 2023.”
There are legitimate concerns about ERIC, however. While continuing to support North Carolina joining ERIC last year, I noted those concerns and called for reforms:
Those conversations [with election officials in ERIC member red states] also highlighted some legitimate concerns about ERIC. They include some opaqueness in handling data and the personnel involved in the data processing. While maintaining the privacy of those in the data system is crucial, transparency in how the system is maintained and who has access to it is just as important. While there is no evidence that data from ERIC has gone to outside groups, it should take steps to assure member states that such a breach is not possible.
Now it appears that ERIC refuses to make those necessary reforms.
Three ERIC member states — Florida, Missouri, and West Virginia — announced on March 6 that they were leaving the organization. While they gave slightly different reasons for their withdrawals, common elements include ERIC’s failure to enact reforms in its February 19 board meeting. Florida’s announcement said those reforms would have “eliminated concerns about ERIC’s potential partisan leanings, and made the information shared with ERIC more secure.”
None of those notices mentioned any of the spurious claims sometimes made about ERIC, such as the claim that it “slips non-citizens onto voter rolls.”
So, what ERIC-produced data are insecure?
One thing we don’t have to worry about securing is voter registration information; those data are already public. Also, ERIC’s rules and federal law disallow the organization from sharing data, including personally identifying information, such as driver’s license numbers. That includes those identified as eligible to vote but unregistered (EBUs).
However, an investigation by Verity Vote found evidence that election officials in some states shared at least part of their EBU data with the progressive Center for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR) “under the guise of a research study.” CEIR is headed by David Becker. Becker is a noted left-wing activist who is also a nonvoting member of ERIC’s board of directors, an uncomfortably close relationship that creates the possibility of self-dealing between those two organizations.
So, what would the SBE do with its ERIC-produced EBU data?
As part of a public records request, I asked the SBE, “What is SBE’s policy regarding sharing information on EBU’s with outside groups, including but not limited to political parties or advocacy groups?” Here is their reply:
We do not have such a policy at this time. However, any such policy would be consistent with the ERIC by-laws and any state and federal laws governing the specific information at issue.
That is not a reassuring answer, given that other states have shared their ERIC-produced EBU data with at least one outside organization.
The General Assembly could prevent the SBE from sharing EBU data with outside political groups, including CEIR, by amending G.S. 163-82.14(a) with language such as the following:
Any information on individuals not registered to vote in North Carolina acquired through data-sharing agreements shall be confidential and not a public record.
Another option would be for the General Assembly to withhold the funds the SBE needs to join ERIC until that organization implements reforms and cuts ties with David Becker.
Joining ERIC would help North Carolina clean its voter rolls, but we must be assured that the risks involved with ERIC membership do not outweigh those benefits.