Can GOP Remake Election Data System Undermined By Conspiracies? : The NPR Politics Podcast The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) helps member states keep their voter rolls up-to-date, which prevents voter fraud. But after a slew of GOP-led states stopped participating in the compact under pressure from voters swayed by conspiracy theories about the group, Republican election officials are now struggling to come up with adequate alternatives.

This episode: campaign correspondent Sarah McCammon, voting correspondent Miles Parks, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

The podcast is produced by Casey Morell and Elena Moore. Our editor is Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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Can GOP Remake Election Data System Undermined By Conspiracies?

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ANNA: This is Anna (ph) calling from the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park that I got to visit because the government is not currently shut down. This podcast was recorded at...

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

1:06 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, October 23, 2023.

ANNA: Things might have changed by the time you hear this.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: (Laughter).

ANNA: Enjoy the show, and I'll be enjoying nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

LIASSON: Like the government might shut down by the time you hear this.

MCCAMMON: Silver linings to the shutdown, I guess, for our listener, at least.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Is it bear season right now? Hopefully not.

LIASSON: It's fat bear season.

PARKS: Oh, yeah.

MCCAMMON: That's right. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the campaign.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

MCCAMMON: So, Miles, you have spent a lot of time reporting on the demise of a voter fraud detection tool called ERIC. Now, this sounds a little technical, but it's actually a super-interesting story and pretty important as we look ahead to future elections. Several Republican-led states have abandoned this tool in response to election-related conspiracy theories that became widespread in some Republican circles. So I want to start with just what is ERIC, exactly?

PARKS: Well, the biggest picture - it is a bipartisan voting tool that, for years, worked really, really well. In terms of what it actually does, it allows states to share election data and also have access to a bunch of other federal data. I think the average person thinks that your elections office in your state just has access to the U.S. Postal Service information on when somebody changes addresses or knows when somebody moved states or something like that. Governments are not talking to each other in that way. So ERIC was invented about 10 years ago to allow an election official in Connecticut to know if their voter, you know, moved to Arizona. It allows election officials to keep their lists more up to date. And then it also, like you mentioned, allows election officials to know if that voter votes twice in the same federal election, which is illegal.

MCCAMMON: So we're talking about sharing what? You said Postal Service data. What else is this?

PARKS: Social Security Administration data in terms of when people die. There's a bunch of other different federal data. But the biggest thing that kind of set ERIC apart from other data-sharing election tools is it also gets driver's license data, which is pretty critical when you talk to experts in terms of - a lot of efforts have tried to be made to compare voting data to each other, in terms of other states, to do what ERIC does. But until this driver's license data was added to it, it was really hard to tell. There's just millions and millions of people in this country. So to tell a John Smith in Connecticut from a John Smith in Arizona from a John Smith, you know, in Georgia or something like that...

MCCAMMON: Right.

PARKS: The driver's license data integrating that is what set ERIC apart. And so it actually produces reports that election officials can actually use and rely on.

MCCAMMON: So you said this had been working well. It had been a bipartisan system. So what happened? Why have some states been pulling out?

PARKS: So then on the far right, all these false conspiracy theories, unfounded theories about the origins of ERIC and how it works and things like that - they started popping up on the far right, making their way through the kind of far right ecosystem that has popped up over the last few years. And what ended up happening is a number of Republican election officials - the pressure just became too great from people in these communities, and states started pulling out. It started with Louisiana first, then Alabama. And then kind of the rush continued. I believe it was Florida, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio. They've all pulled out now.

MCCAMMON: I mean, Mara, have you ever seen anything like this in covering elections?

LIASSON: No. Where people were trying to literally dismantle the infrastructure that keeps elections fair and free of fraud - no, I've never seen this. ERIC, on its face, does exactly what all of the people who say they believe the 2020 election was rigged supposedly care about. It's a tool to prevent voter fraud. But because of this conspiracy theory that somehow it's nefarious, we're going to have a situation where it's going to be easier to commit voter fraud. It doesn't really make any sense unless your real motivation is to try to suppress the vote and put your thumb on the scale for your side.

MCCAMMON: You know, Miles, ostensibly, these states still need some way of catching voter fraud. They're - in many cases, they've done this because they've said voter fraud is important to catch.

PARKS: Right.

MCCAMMON: So what are they doing?

PARKS: Well, so basically what our story this week found is that a lot of these states are running into this problem of, how do we get this data? And they're all kind of trying to recreate it in different ways. And we're seeing this kind of scattershot effort on the right to essentially recreate ERIC. I talked about this with Josh Daniels, who's a former county clerk in Utah. He's a Republican. And I asked him, what do you make of all these states kind of - they've been making these announcements about these - voter data-sharing partnerships is what they're calling them. What do you make of that in comparison to ERIC?

JOSH DANIELS: These states have decided that, instead of using a wheel, they're instead going to invent a spherical device that will allow them to easily transport items from A to B.

PARKS: So these states have basically - secretaries of state in a number of these states have announced these voter data partnerships where they've signed on to - you know, Virginia is now going to share some election records with West Virginia. West Virginia is going to share them with Ohio one to one as opposed to, you know, what ERIC is, which is, at its height, more than 30 states now, more than two dozen states or roughly two dozen states sharing data with a system. It's going to be these kind of one-to-one partnerships.

MCCAMMON: Which would intuitively not seem to work as well. Do we know how it's working?

PARKS: Well, they haven't really started yet. So it's hard to judge them at this point. But I talked to experts who had looked at the kind of mechanics behind these partnerships. And, yes, I mean, you alluded to this idea that there's going to be less data being shared just between - if it's just two states sharing with each other as opposed to getting the data from dozens of states. Obviously, that's less data. But what's really interesting is they're not going to be sharing driver's license data. And if you remember, I talked about how important that is to being able to come up with reliable records.

And so I talked to one expert who told me that is the red flag - that's a direct quote - that when you find out that these election administrators are not going to be sharing that driver's license data or that's not going to be part of these partnerships, there is no way possible - is what he said - for this to work as well as ERIC. So they're kind of making an effort to recreate some portions of ERIC. But everyone I've talked to is very skeptical that these efforts are going to have the same functionality as ERIC did.

MCCAMMON: And while it remains to be seen what will happen, arguably opening the door for more voter fraud.

PARKS: I mean, definitely it's going to be harder to catch voter fraud in these states. I mean, I think even the election officials themselves, if you talk off the record with any of them, would say, yes, we had a tool that detected voter fraud, and we pulled out of it.

MCCAMMON: All right - time for a quick break. We'll be back in just a second.

And we're back. Mara, there's one thing that's worth talking about here. Miles' investigation found that Republican primaries played a big role in this move away from this voter fraud detection tool called ERIC that we've been talking about. Some Republican candidates were feeling pressure from voters who'd been consuming this fringe-right news and had taken in these conspiracy theories Miles was talking about. What does that reflect about the current state of the GOP?

LIASSON: Well, I think it reflects the fact that the GOP is powered by the engine of Trumpist voters, MAGA voters, conspiracy theories. This is the base of the current GOP. And if you're going to run in a Republican primary, as many of these election officials want to do as they move up the ladder, you're going to have to appeal to that base. And that base believes a lot of things that aren't true. I think that you see something similar happening in Congress, where you have the majority of the Republicans in the House voting to overturn the results of the 2020 election and then later voting for a government shutdown and to default on the U.S. debt. This is a party that has really moved very far to the right.

PARKS: Well, it's interesting too, because, you know, this ERIC system, Sarah - obviously, I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, but I don't know if the average voter necessarily knows what ERIC is. I think Frank LaRose is a really interesting person. He is the secretary of state - Republican secretary of state of Ohio, pulled that state out of ERIC and is now running for U.S. Senate in what is ostensibly a battleground state. And so he is trying - looking ahead at a Republican primary. But if he were to come out of that, would something like this actually affect his ability to win over independent voters? I honestly have no idea. Does the average independent voter in Ohio know about ERIC, care about ERIC? I don't know.

MCCAMMON: And this kind of brings me to my next question. You've both sort of touched on parts of this, and let me see if I can put it into words. I guess I'm wondering, what's the larger objective here? And by that I mean, are these Republican officials pulling out of this widely used system - is it out of a political concern that we were just talking about? Is it a sincere concern in some cases about voter fraud? Or is there a case to be made that something else is going on, maybe an effort to muddy the waters in voters' minds about the security of the election system? I mean, without reading people's minds, what do we know about what might be the larger objective?

PARKS: I kept hearing from people involved in this story that voters in Republican primaries are thinking about this. They're reading the places that these conspiracy theories are, and they care about it. And so I think it is, in the action of pulling out, pretty directly linked to wanting - to win over those voters and maybe potentially not to some larger scheme involving democracy. But I will say we are seeing that people are jumping on this to try to affect democracy now that these states have pulled out. We've seen a number of far-right influencers try to create their own fraud-finding software, trying to pitch it to secretaries of state in these states that have pulled out of ERIC to try to kind of fill this election data void.

And so I do think I talked to one professor who told me, essentially, by pulling out of ERIC, the entire democracy doesn't, like, crumble on itself the next day, right? But over time, these states who pull out of ERIC will have slightly less up-to-date voter rolls. What that means is that gives - that feeds the cycle of being able to point to inaccuracy - not necessarily fraud, but being able to point to inaccuracy on voter lists as evidence of some broader corruption. I think it definitely feeds that cycle.

MCCAMMON: You know, we've been talking a lot about this issue as a motivating one for, essentially, Republican base voters. But, Mara, we've also seen this motivate Democrats, right? I mean, in 2022, voters were motivated by concerns about democracy. It became a kitchen-table issue in a way I don't think we'd seen before, at least for a while.

LIASSON: And we certainly didn't see it at the time. We were confused. In 2022, we all thought there would be a red wave because voters', we thought, top concern was inflation. Guess what? They had other concerns. and one of them was January 6 and threats to democracy, even though they didn't maybe express it that way. But I think that it is an issue. And Joe Biden has continued to run on this. And I don't know if it'll get as granular as having a political discussion on the stump about ERIC, but I do think voters are concerned about democracy.

PARKS: Yeah, the two things are so clearly linked. I think about Brad Raffensperger, who's somebody who stood up to Trump...

MCCAMMON: Secretary of state in Georgia.

PARKS: Secretary of state of Georgia. That's right - and then was able to win pretty handily in 2022. Also one of ERIC's biggest defenders. And so I think that all of these things are kind of linked in that way, that the people who are willing to kind of stand up in that way are also - seem to be linked to other stories like this.

MCCAMMON: Well, thank you, Miles, for all your great reporting.

PARKS: Yeah, thanks.

MCCAMMON: All right. Let's leave it there for today. I'm Sarah McCammon. I cover the campaign.

PARKS: I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

MCCAMMON: And thank you, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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