Alabama’s New Election-Denying Secretary of State Leaves Group That Helps States Clean Voter Rolls
The decision to pull Alabama out of ERIC was fueled by right-wing conspiracies that spread last year, and has alarmed election administration professionals.
Daniel Nichanian, | January 18, 2023
As an Alabama lawmaker, Wes Allen cheered legal efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election—and he rode that “Stop the Steal” persona to win the election for secretary of state, Alabama’s chief elections official, last fall. Now in office, Allen has wasted no time putting his rhetoric into action.
On his first day in office on Monday, Allen terminated Alabama’s membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of roughly 30 states that share data about their voter rolls to keep them up to date, citing concerns about data privacy.
“I made a promise to the people of Alabama that ending our state’s relationship with the ERIC organization would be my first official act as Secretary of State,” he said.
Allen’s quick move, fueled by right-wing conspiracies about ERIC that spread last year, alarmed election administration professionals.
“Anything that makes elections more secure is a target for the election deniers, and the attacks on ERIC are just another tactic in this effort,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, an organization that works closely with election administrators.
Becker, who is a non-voting member of ERIC’s board after helping spearhead its launch a decade ago, attributed the decision to the lies about election administration spread by election deniers.
Allen first promised he would leave ERIC on the campaign trail last year, shortly after the conservative website Gateway Pundit published a series of stories falsely tying ERIC to George Soros, the progressive-leaning billionaire. Those stories, which called ERIC a “left wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up,” spread among Republicans who were already fanning other conspiracies about election administration, helping turn ERIC into a target of far-right organizations. Allen himself referred to Soros in explaining his hostility to ERIC in early 2022.
ERIC is financially supported by its member states, including many staunchly red ones that are governed by Republicans, such as South Carolina and Texas, as well as many blue states. The current chair of ERIC, Mandi Grandjean, is the deputy assistant secretary of state of Ohio under Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Trump-endorsed Republican.
John Merrill, Alabama’s outgoing secretary of state whom Allen replaced, and a Republican known for his own poor record on voting rights—he threatened to go after hundreds voters who mistakenly thought they could vote in a partisan runoff, failed to inform voters of their rights, and lashed out at critics of the state’s voting rights record—steadfastly defended ERIC throughout 2022.
“This continued narrative of ERIC being a George Soros system is untrue. ERIC was not founded nor funded by George Soros, and to claim otherwise is either dishonest or misinformed,” Merrill said in November. Becker echoed that characterization on Wednesday. “Putting aside the nature of those attacks, it’s just 100 percent false,” he said.
Tammy Patrick, the CEO of Election Center, a national organization that represents election administrators, stressed that ERIC was built to meet the practical needs of officials from both parties. “From its inception ERIC has been a bipartisan effort,” she told Bolts on Wednesday. “The policies and functionality were all created taking into account the perspectives of election administrators from across the political spectrum.
Voter registration across the United States is largely in the hands of local offices whose resources are limited, in part due to insufficient federal funding, creating strains that private or non-profit organizations have filled. This has, in turn, opened the door for right-wing conspiracies about those funding sources, leading to efforts by some conservatives to further cut off external assistance to local election offices.
First launched in 2012, ERIC is one of those organizations. Its member states share their voter rolls with ERIC, which matches them to one another and to other agencies like Social Security to identify duplicates and to clean the voter rolls of people who have moved or died.
“ERIC is the first and still only tool that states have to be able to keep up with the mobility of the American public,” Becker said. “People move a lot in the United States, and that means voter lists are often out of date, and keeping up with all that mobility is a real challenge.” Becker added that ERIC can also flag when a voter has cast a ballot in two different states in the same election, a guardrail against fraud. Where voter rolls are not cleaned up or are discovered to have errors, Republican politicians are often quick to point to erroneous voter rolls to make false claims of fraud.
“ERIC allows states to basically combine forces and share data with each other in a system that they themselves run,” Becker said.
If a state is not part of ERIC, Patrick said, local election officials will face a higher burden to run and update their systems.
“ERIC states have the advantage of sophisticated data-matching engines to aid in keeping their voter rolls as accurate as possible—this can be a monumental task for election administrators given the transient nature of the voting population and the consistent under-funding of our election infrastructure,” Patrick told Bolts.
Becker agreed that the departure from ERIC would erode the state’s voter lists, which could lead to a cascade of problems.
“Voter lists are going to be less accurate, they’re going to have more people who have moved out of Alabama who are on their lists, they will likely have more people who have died remain on their list because ERIC is very good at identifying people who died, they are likely going to see an increase in things like provisional ballots and returned mail, which are consequences of having out-of-date lists, and they are going to lose access to one of the great tools to investigate potential fraud,” he told Bolts.
Allen’s office did not reply to a request for comment. In his statement, Allen raised concerns about the threats to the privacy and security of registered voters’ information when Alabama shares its data with ERIC and other states.
“Providing the private information of Alabama citizens, including underage minors, to an out of state organization is troubling to me and to people that I heard from as I traveled the state for the last 20 months,” Allen said.
Allen is one of four Republicans who aligned with election deniers in raising false doubts about the results of the 2020 presidential election, and then won a secretary of state election in 2022. All four prevailed in reliably Republican states, while election deniers who ran in the traditional battleground states like Arizona or Michigan failed, but voting rights advocates have warned to not look past places like Alabama.
While in the legislature, Allen sponsored and supported legislation restricting ballot access in the name of combating voter fraud, such as a bill that was signed into law in 2021 that codified Merrill’s efforts to ban curbside voting in the state. In his run for secretary of state, Allen echoed other Trumpian conspiracies regarding mail-in voting and promised there would be “no drop boxes” in Alabama if elected.
Becker pointed out that election deniers often go after voting and counting procedures that are known to be secure, such as ballot drop boxes, attacks he compared to the claims about ERIC.
“Individuals who spread these lies are actually attacking election integrity, and the infrastructure of election integrity, while they use language related to election integrity,” Becker said.
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