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How the far right tore apart one of the best tools to fight voter fraud

MILES PARKS, HOST:

It's been 2 1/2 years since Joe Biden was elected president of the United States, but the false idea that his election was somehow illegitimate is still flourishing in many places, thanks in large part to a woman named Cleta Mitchell. If you don't remember Mitchell, she's an election attorney who was a central player in former President Donald Trump's effort to overturn the 2020 election. She was on that infamous phone call when Trump pressured Georgia election officials about the state's results.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHO'S COUNTING WITH CLETA MITCHELL")

CLETA MITCHELL: But the people of Georgia and the people of America have a right to know the answers.

PARKS: Now Mitchell hosts a podcast about voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHO'S COUNTING WITH CLETA MITCHELL")

MITCHELL: Hello. Welcome to this episode of "Who's Counting With Cleta Mitchell."

PARKS: And in an odd twist, the fringe conspiracies on her show are now pushing Republicans to abandon one of the best tools out there to catch voter fraud. It's known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. And I've spent the past few months embedded with NPR's investigations team looking at the far-right's effort to blow ERIC up. Here's Mitchell on her podcast again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHO'S COUNTING WITH CLETA MITCHELL")

MITCHELL: ERIC is a very insidious organization.

PARKS: This is weird. Only nerds who write about elections like me and nerds who run elections think about ERIC. Kathy Boockvar used to oversee voting in Pennsylvania as the secretary of the Commonwealth.

Was this the thing that was kind of in the conversation at all when you were secretary of state?

KATHY BOOCKVAR: ERIC specifically?

PARKS: Yeah.

BOOCKVAR: No. I honestly nobody knew what ERIC was.

PARKS: ERIC is a voluntary partnership. It allows states to share information about their voters. It enables the people who run elections to know when their voters move or die. It's also the only way states have to flag if someone votes in more than one state, which is illegal. For a while, everyone loved it - well, almost everyone. Cleta Mitchell has spent the past year working to dismantle ERIC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: We need people to tell their legislatures and tell their state election offices to stop sending the data, to just withdraw from ERIC.

PARKS: Now, election deniers have been trying to change every part of how America votes. They want to get rid of voting by mail, voting early. They want to move back to hand counting ballots, even though it's less accurate. But the reason the attack on ERIC matters even more is because it's working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Iowa's secretary of state is recommending the state leave an organization it once praised.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Florida and two other states are pulling out of what's called the Electronic Registration Information...

PARKS: After a decade of uneventful collaboration, ERIC is teetering on the brink of collapse. At its height, ERIC had 32 members. Now eight states and counting have pulled out - all Republican. Our investigation shows a conspiracy theory that started on a far-right website is now driving the political party bent on catching voter fraud to destroy one of the only tools states have to catch it.

It helps to know a little bit more about how ERIC works and how it started. Fifteen years ago, a man named David Becker was working at the Pew Charitable Trusts. His team got a bunch of voting people together and just asked them, what can we do to make elections better?

DAVID BECKER: Every single election official we asked back in 2008 said voter registration.

PARKS: The federal government had begun requiring states to keep statewide voter lists, but it felt impossible to keep them up to date.

BECKER: Our society is highly mobile. About one-third of all Americans move within any given four-year period.

PARKS: And millions of people die every year, too. All that makes planning where people should vote or how to get information to them really hard because the addresses voting officials have on file are often wrong. For voters, that can mean longer lines and even mail ballots getting sent to the wrong places.

ERIC solved two problems for election officials. First, it pulls data from a bunch of different sources like state DMVs and the Postal Service. Second, it sifts through that data and spits out reports that election officials can use to keep their voting rolls up to date. It allows states to tell with almost certainty which voters are which.

BECKER: Whether John Doe in one state and John Doe in another state are the same John Doe. Then they can tell the state with the older record that John Doe has moved away and the state with the new record, that you've got a new voter, and you should reach out to them, make sure they know they can get registered to vote.

PARKS: The system helped update voter rolls, which attracted Republicans who have long prioritized cleaning up America's voting lists. But it also required states to reach out to eligible voters who weren't registered yet, which appealed to Democrats. And states also use it to prosecute the small amount of fraud that does happen every federal election.

FRANK LAROSE: You know, the good news is that kind of crime is rare, but we take it seriously.

PARKS: This is Ohio's secretary of state, Frank LaRose. I talked with him about ERIC for a while in February.

LAROSE: I mean, the little secret is that maybe more than 10 years ago, if somebody voted in Ohio and Florida and Arizona and Texas, you would have never known. There was no way to catch that unless they went out and bragged about it. And so with ERIC, we can compare our voter rolls to those states.

PARKS: So ERIC was considered a success and growing until January of last year. The first crack in ERIC surfaced with a press release in Louisiana. On January 27, 2022, the Republican secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, announced that Louisiana was putting its membership in ERIC on pause, citing concerns raised by, quote, "citizens, government watchdog organizations and media reports." That announcement shocked the voting world. Ardoin declined to be interviewed, but understanding why he made his decision helps to make sense of this whole ERIC story. Remember his reference to media reports? Well, roughly a week before Louisiana's announcement, a prominent far-right website called The Gateway Pundit published the first of a series of articles about ERIC. The website's founder, Jim Hoft, summarized the key points in an interview with Steve Bannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM HOFT: It was meant to be a voter cleanup organization. And what it is is actually just a membership organization for the blue states. It's a left-wing organization. And what they do is just register people.

PARKS: NPR's investigations team analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media posts and found that the first Gateway Pundit article was the moment when far-right interest in ERIC really took off. But the bigger question is still, why is a guy like Kyle Ardoin, who's worked in elections for more than a decade, making policy decisions based on articles in The Gateway Pundit? And to try to find that answer, we head to a town hall event in Houma, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is my honor to welcome each of you here.

PARKS: Ardoin said little publicly about his ERIC decision last January, but our investigation found he did bring the announcement to perhaps the only constituents at that time who would even care - We the People, the Bayou Chapter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE ARDOIN: I do communicate with individuals from We the People from all across the state on a regular basis. It's phenomenal to have citizen activists...

PARKS: The group is one of several chapters in the state and one of hundreds of grassroots organizations across the country motivated by Trump's voting conspiracy theories that have popped up since 2020, the part of a new election denial blueprint that helps propel fringe ideas into government action. When Ardoin announced his decision to withdraw from ERIC, the room cheered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARDOIN: This week, I sent a letter to the Election Registration Information Center suspending Louisiana's participation in that program.

PARKS: Ardoin was gearing up to run for reelection this year, and Ohio's Frank LaRose noted that after the Gateway Pundit article, ERIC had become a key topic in Republican primaries, where candidates cater to the diehard members of the party.

LAROSE: You could see where somebody who's out there trying to prove their conservative bona fides in a primary, which is what you do, would read this article and say, OK, that thing is bad, let's get our state out of it. But hopefully, over time, the noise about this starts to die down and other states look to get back into it.

PARKS: Remember that last thing LaRose just said - we'll come back to it. After Louisiana pulled out, the second domino to fall was Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WES ALLEN: Saw what happened in 2020 around the country and how disturbing that was.

PARKS: This is Wes Allen at a campaign event in his race for secretary of state of Alabama. Early in his primary run last year, he promised that the state would pull out of ERIC on his first day in office if he won. That promise came a week and a half after the Gateway Pundit article, for those keeping track at home.

ALLEN: We started hearing it on the campaign trail too. When I would travel, these voters would be at these particular meetings that I would go to, this subject matter came up.

PARKS: But when we got into the actual problems with ERIC, Allen told me it wasn't really about that. One issue that keeps coming up is this alleged connection to George Soros. The liberal billionaire is at the center of a lot of false right wing and anti-Semitic conspiracies. The initial Gateway Pundit article calls ERIC Soros funded in its headline. And when Allen made his announcement, he said, quote, "Soros can take his minions and his database and troll someone else because Alabamians are going to be off limits permanently." But when I asked him about that accusation, he backed off it.

ALLEN: I mean, it's maintained now by the states, but it really doesn't matter in my mind who funded ERIC. You know, we're still not going to participate in it. You know, it doesn't matter if it was a leftist group or 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.

PARKS: Just to be clear, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations has given money to Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped develop ERIC. But there's no evidence that Soros has ever had any involvement with ERIC. The data security concern Allen mentioned comes up a lot too. But ERIC encrypts all the sensitive data it gets from states, like dates of birth and the last four digits of Social Security numbers, before it even analyzes them.

Something that became more and more clear as I talked to Wes Allen was that this was a political decision. So Allen was out, and for a while, it looked like the bleeding might stop with those two ruby red states, Louisiana and Alabama. But under the radar, a powerful pressure campaign was still building, which is where Cleta Mitchell comes in. She's the Republican lawyer trying to take down ERIC. Mitchell declined to be interviewed for this story, but her podcast has become a hub of anti-ERIC messaging since 2020. She's also built a network of local election integrity groups. And our investigation found that these sort of groups mobilized to distribute talking points on ERIC to state lawmakers and election officials across the country. Mitchell has also met with red state officials on ERIC, including Florida's secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: A dear friend and a real friend of election integrity, and that is Cord Byrd.

PARKS: Even before he was secretary, Mitchell said Byrd joined her weekly election integrity calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCHELL: You've had such a great open door and willing to listen. And you are very much appreciated.

PARKS: Byrd declined an NPR request for an interview, but this spring, he announced the state was pulling out of ERIC, along with Missouri and West Virginia. The states cited data privacy and partisanship issues with the organization, but they all joined voluntarily years ago and didn't voice any issues until the far right started targeting it. Shortly after, more red states dropped out too - Virginia, which was a founding member and joined under a Republican governor, Iowa and Ohio.

LAROSE: But I can tell you that it is one of the best fraud fighting tools that we have. It's a tool that has provided great benefit for us, and we're going to continue to use it.

PARKS: That's Ohio's secretary of state, Frank LaRose, also in February. You've already heard him praising ERIC a lot in this story. So what changed? He told me ERIC was dismissing the concerns of Republican states, but he was adamant the misinformation campaign did not influence his decision making.

LAROSE: Wild ideas about conspiracies of, you know, data leaking out the back door and secret funding sources and all that kind of stuff, I've rejected all of that. And what we've said all along is that this organization needs to be more accountable.

PARKS: It's worth noting that Ohio was an ERIC member for six years and these concerns didn't come up. LaRose is also widely expected to make a run for U.S. Senate. He's not the only Republican who's satisfied the base by pulling out of ERIC and is now eyeing a promotion. In Florida, Governor DeSantis, who appointed Cord Byrd, is running in the Republican presidential primary. The secretaries of state in both West Virginia and Missouri, Mac Warner and Jay Ashcroft, have both announced runs for governor. The day Missouri pulled out, The Gateway Pundit reported that Ashcroft told them before telling the public.

For the record, ERIC is still standing, though with less shared data and higher costs for remaining members. The partnership still has more than two dozen member states, including a few Republican states like Georgia. Its secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, told me that this mass exodus will mostly be felt in the places that left.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: It actually hurts that state more than it hurts us. So they just basically indirectly said we're going to have dirtier voter rolls over there.

PARKS: Brianna Lennon is a Democrat who runs elections for Missouri's Boone County, and she said that will certainly be the case where she is. Her office has relied on ERIC reports for information on voters who changed addresses and voters who died in other states. Now they'll be waiting for returned mail.

BRIANNA LENNON: The little yellow sticker that says this person is now living in Georgia or something like that, that's what we'll have to go back to using.

PARKS: As she looks ahead to 2024, Lennon says she's worried about the accuracy of her voting lists for that election, but she's just as worried about the power of the election denial movement that targeted ERIC.

LENNON: I'm sure there going to be ripples that come from this particular move, and I'm not exactly sure what the end will be. I don't think that this is the - I don't think this is an isolated thing.

PARKS: And one final note. Remember Louisiana's Kyle Ardoin, the first official to pull out of Iraq? As we finished reporting this story, he announced he was no longer running for reelection. At a voting event this spring, he said reasoning with people who believe conspiracy theories feels like a losing battle. Miles Parks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.