A Stew of Stupidity
Eight state have withdrawn from a system to prevent illegal voting because of ignorance and agitation.
Ok, so it is pretty obvious that it is illegal to vote in more than one state in the same federal election. Given the fact that a lot of citizens do have residences in more than one state, and given the ability of persons to vote absentee (or, if close enough, drive between polling locations), it stands to reason that it would be nice to have a way to make sure citizens are not illegally voting twice (this seems especially true given the nature of technology in the current era). There is also the possibility that a person has moved, but remains on the voting rolls in more than one state. While none of this is a major problem, we do know that some people do attempt to vote in more than one election and that we lack a good process to address the issue.
In 2012 a non-profit called ERIC (Electronic Registration Information Center) was created that provides a method to cross-check. It originally had 32 states (more info here for those who are interested). The organization also, and perhaps more importantly, helps those states maintain accurate voter rolls since there is currently no centralized way in the US to know that person X has moved to state Y and is now a Y voter and not an X voter. In truth, ERIC is a bit of a band-aid to address the fragmented nature of elections administration in the United States.
Here’s a description from a May NPR piece about the organization:
ERIC is the only way states currently have to share election data, as well as data from state motor vehicle agencies and other government departments.
The organization anonymizes the data it receives from states, then compares it to spit out reports that local election administrators can use to correct outdated addresses, remove dead voters, and reach out to eligible people who aren’t registered.
For the first 10 years, ERIC grew steadily with states like South Carolina, Connecticut and, most recently, New Jersey joining.
And one of its biggest calling cards was helping to catch the small amount of voter fraud that does happen every federal election. A January report from the Florida Department of State Office of Election Crimes and Security said it had “used data provided by ERIC to identify” hundreds of voters who appeared to have voted in Florida and in another ERIC member state in the same election.
Sounds useful, right? Even the kind of thing that people who are allegedly quite concerned about illegal voting might be on board for, right? Well…
I had been aware that ERIC had been under attack in some corners of the elections denialists sphere and then this morning heard the following via NPR: How the far right tore apart one of the best tools to fight voter fraud.
ERIC is currently the only system that can catch if someone votes in more than one state, which is illegal. And election officials widely agree it helps to identify dead people on voting lists.
…eight states and counting have now pulled out of ERIC — shows a policy blueprint for an election denial movement, spearheaded by a key Trump ally, eager to change virtually every aspect of how Americans vote.
The eight states are all Republican-controlled, including my state of Alabama, and the basis for the withdrawals appears to be paranoia and conspiracy theories around privacy.
In late 2021, [J. Christian Adams, a conservative elections attorney] appeared on a conservative radio program and called ERIC “diabolical.”
His voting advocacy law firm has sued a number of states for records related to ERIC. And he even wrote what’s believed to be the first article ever alleging a connection between Soros and ERIC, back in 2016. (The Soros-funded Open Society Foundations has given money previously to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped start ERIC, but Soros has never had any involvement in the organization.)
In an interview with NPR this year, Adams said he never intended his criticisms to lead to states actually leaving the organization.
Hmm, perhaps it would have been better to use a term other than “diabolical” if he didn’t want states to leave? And, of course, the whole point of bringing up Soros is to spark some combination of antisemitism and one-world government paranoia. So while Adams is now telling NPR “It’s this crazy zeal to get out of ERIC,” well, that’s too little too late.
Adams took credit for being the first to criticize ERIC, citing concerns about transparency, but when asked how the debate turned from organizational tweaks into states leaving, he said people with more extreme views cherry-picked what they wanted to see in his work.
Well, that’s a convenient story to tell himself, but the reality is that he has helped sites like Gateway Pundit to stir the conspiracy pot:
in January 2022, the tool drew the ire of one of the most prolific misinformation peddlers on the internet: a website called the Gateway Pundit.
The right-wing website is known for pushing conspiracy theories, including the so-called birther theory about former President Barack Obama, and that survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida were crisis actors. More recently, it published an article implying COVID vaccines were 98 times worse for people than the virus itself.
About a week before Louisiana’s Ardoin made his reference to “media reports,” the Gateway Pundit began targeting ERIC. The website published a series of articles that falsely said the bipartisan partnership was a “left wing voter registration drive,” bankrolled by billionaire George Soros, aimed at helping Democrats win elections.
It’s become clear the site ignited the election denial movement’s fixation on ERIC.
And so you end up with brilliant moves like the following as described in a press release from Alabama Secretary of State, Wes Allen:
“I was in DC for a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of States and, since I was in town, I went to see the ERIC Headquarters,” Allen explained. “What I found was that there was no ERIC headquarters at that address. There were no employees. There were no servers. There was no ERIC presence of any kind. Instead, I found a virtual office that is rentable by the day. What it was missing was people, servers and any sign of the ERIC team.”
Despite publishing the Connecticut Avenue address as its official address on its website, the location is actually operated by Expansive, a company that offers virtual workspaces across the country and rents space by the day.
“Before I took office, Alabama transmitted the personal information of millions of our citizens to this private organization for the past several years. That information is stored on a server somewhere but we do not know where. There is no ERIC operation at the location they claim is their office,” Allen said. “A lot of personal data and taxpayer money has been transferred to ERIC. Where is that data? Where are the employees? Where are the offices? Where are the computers?”
Allen was elected as Alabama’s 54th Secretary of State in November and was inaugurated in January. Withdrawing Alabama from ERIC was Allen’s first act as Secretary of State. The official withdrawal process takes 90 days, meaning Alabama will be officially withdrawn by mid-April. Allen has ceased transmitting any data from Alabama to ERIC.
This is, of course, tantamount to going to a local post office wherein a company has a PO box and then loudly declaring the company doesn’t exist because they aren’t in said post office. It is performative foolishness.
Indeed, another example of Allen’s performative foolishness can be found in the NPR piece:
“Soros can take his minions and his database and troll someone else because Alabamians are going to be off limits — permanently,” said Wes Allen, who served previously in Alabama’s House of Representatives.
Well, that will show Soros! (or something).
Allen went on to win the state’s Republican primary in June, and followed through on his ERIC promise after winning the state’s general election.
But in the interview with NPR, he struggled to articulate the specific concerns he had with the partnership that led him to pull the state out.
On the false alleged Soros connection, for instance, Allen said he no longer cared whether the billionaire was actually involved with the program or not.
“I mean, it’s maintained now by the states, but it really doesn’t matter in my mind who funded ERIC,” Allen told NPR. “You know, we’re still not going to participate in it. It doesn’t matter if it was a leftist group or a right group, whoever. We just feel and, you know, I heard loud and clear on the campaign trail that the people of Alabama want their data protected.”
In regards to data security, a legitimate concern in the abstract, the piece notes the following.
A vague concern about data privacy has become a key motivator for a number of states that have now pulled out of ERIC.
But there has never been any evidence of a data breach at ERIC, or any data being shared without a state’s permission. ERIC uses a security process called one-way hashing to encrypt all the sensitive data (driver’s license numbers, the last four digits of Social Security numbers) it receives from states, before it analyzes it.
Election officials also note that most of the data ERIC receives is already widely available as public record.
The whole thing is an excellent illustration of how disinformation makes it into a broader network which, in turn, leads to the kind of nonsense we see from Allen and officials in other states.
NPR analyzed hundreds of thousands of posts on five alternative social media sites frequented by the far right — Gettr, Gab, Parler, Telegram and Trump’s Truth Social — over the past two years, and found that conversation about ERIC really only began after the first Gateway Pundit article published.
The NPR piece is long and detailed and is worth a full read. It is a testament to our current political state wherein narratives and half-baked theories can have real political and policy consequences.
At a bare minimum it is amazing (but not surprising) that a group which is allegedly extremely concerned about illegal voting would seek to dismantle a system that their own co-partisans have attested is one of the best tools that currently exists to achieve the goal of fighting illegal voting.
Not only is it exasperating, but it is also truly frightening how conspiracy theories and exaggerated fears can go from fringe websites to social media to influencing alleged adults who are in charge of key governance infrastructure.