David J. Toscano is an attorney and a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He is the author ofFighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives, University of Virginia Press, 2021, andBellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020, Hamilton Books, 2022.
The surest way to undermine democracy is to destroy the legitimacy of the electoral process. When citizens question how leaders are chosen and decisions are made, they become cynical, less inclined to participate, and may come to believe that democracy itself is a sham. Under such circumstances, the peaceful transfer of power may even be at risk. Whether they understand it or not, MAGA Republicans and their enablers are undermining our electoral process, engaging in a methodical process that is sowing dissent about the integrity of our elections and legitimacy of our leaders. Virginia’s recent decision to join 7 other states in withdrawing from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) simply feeds the narrative that our election process is broken. While these withdrawals appear small by comparison to the January 6, 2021 assault on our nation’s Capital, they are nonetheless significant, as they widen existing fractures in the bedrock of electoral legitimacy. And just as the Commonwealth was key to the organization’s formation, its withdrawal could prove critical to its demise.
ERIC AND ITS VIRGINIA ORIGINS
ERIC was created in 2012 to help states guard against voter fraud and modernize their election databases. The consensus of experts at the time, based on substantial empirical research, indicated that voter fraud was not only extremely rare, but the limited instances where it occurred were not sufficient to change the outcome of elections. Nonetheless, many elections officials had become increasingly concerned that voter rolls included the names of people who should not be there. A 2012 Pew Center study, for example, concluded that about one of every eight voter registrations in the United States were no longer valid or significantly inaccurate. Millions of deceased individuals remained on voting rolls and almost 2.75 million people retained registrations in more than one state. Clearly change was necessary to modernize our system.
The most prominent interstate collaboration addressing these problems at the time, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck (IVRC) program, was viewed with suspicion as a vehicle for voter purges. Created in 2005 by “voter fraud” crusader Kris Kobach and housed in his state of Kansas, IVRC was riddled with errors, with the result that states like Virginia removed voters from the rolls that should have been retained. A new approach was needed that was nonpartisan and protected the privacy of the databases (IVRC ultimately collapsed following disclosures that the private information of numerous voters had been seriously compromised).
Led by then-Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and his Democratic and Republican colleagues in the diverse states of Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Utah, and Washington, ERIC emerged in 2012 from a broad consensus that election administration needed modernization, and that interstate cooperation was essential to the effort. By early 2023, 32 states plus Washington, D.C. had joined the group, with a nearly even split of red and blue states.
ERIC became the way for states to share and compare election data and information from state motor vehicle agencies and other departments. State and local election officials then used the information to correct outdated addresses, remove dead registrants, and inform eligible people who were not registered to vote. Data proves the organization’s success. ERIC is credited with identifying 66,000 potentially deceased voters in Maryland and 778,000 people who may have moved out of that state since 2013. Georgia officials removed 100,000 ineligible voters based on data provided by ERIC. Virginia elections data reported that 37,803 voters had subsequently registered in another state in the years after they had cast a vote in Virginia. These numbers were not surprising; voters move to other states and register there. They die. The data allowed states to update their voting lists, making fraud less likely and easier to detect.
Many Republican leaders initially backed the program. With considerable fanfare about ERICs ability to identify problems with voter rolls, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis brought the Sunshine State into the program in 2020. Ohio Republican Sec. of State Frank DeRose hailed ERIC’s voter match abilities in identifying fraud, and in March, 2023, stated that the group was “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have,…and we're going to continue to use it.” Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate not only called the organization a “godsend,” but, as recently as February, 2023, touted it as an “effective tool for ensuring the integrity of Iowa’s voter rolls.” By mid-March 2023, all three states had left the compact, joining Alabama, West Virginia, Louisiana, and Missouri. Virginia is the most recent defection, and observers expect Texas and other states to follow. What happened?
RIGHT WING ECHO CHAMBER STRIKES
ERIC is very good at spotting dual registrations across state lines. But its mission also includes providing information to individuals who may be eligible to vote. Whether this is a complete explanation for the right-wing drumbeat begun against the group in 2022, it seems to be no accident that all of the defectors come from states with Republican governors. The rightwing website called Gateway Pundit began targeting the organization last year with a series of articles claiming ERIC was “essentially a left wing voter registration drive” funded by George Soros and designed to steal elections from Republicans. In truth, the organization’s funding comes from state membership fees, but that has not prevented ERIC’s detractors from repeating the lie. More recently, Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit, embraced the cause, alleging that ERIC was “a syndicate founded by leftists.” Even Donald Trump has weighed in, erroneously claiming that ERIC “pumps the rolls” for Democrats.
Republican leaders seeking higher office began to view withdrawal from ERIC as a litmus test by which they could demonstrate their conservative bona fides, despite criticism that “they were for it before they were against it.” Republican Secretaries of State in two states that just withdrew from ERIC–Jay Ashcroft of Missouri and Mac Warner of West Virginia–announced bids for governor last month. LaRose is considering a bid for the U.S. Senate. DeSantis just launched his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. And Youngkin has curried favor with the conservative base since he became Virginia’s governor in 2021.
Of all the decisions involving withdrawal from ERIC, Virginia is the most puzzling. As an original founding member, it has a decade of experience with the group during both Democratic and Republican administrations. The group’s purposes have not changed in that decade, and it has shown a record of success. Perhaps Youngkin is simply looking for any opportunity to match DeSantis’s actions to appeal to the conservative base that has not warmed to the Florida governor but has qualms about a Trump redux. It is certainly not due to cost; the Commonwealth’s member dues are $54,000 per year.
Despite his best efforts, evidenced by executive actions to undermine diversity and deny the full complexity of our history, Youngkin has failed to pass a conservative agenda that has been promoted in red states across the nation. This is largely due to a slim Democratic majority in the Virginia State Senate that has scuttled countless attempts to make the state look more like North Carolina–or even Mississippi. Efforts by Virginia Republicans to unwind major voting rights initiatives, climate change actions, or gun safety measures passed during Democratic control several years ago have failed, and the GOP legislative leaders strategically decided that legislation to restrict abortion should await the results of this fall’s elections, when Youngkin will bring his massive war chest to bear to give the GOP a red trifecta.
In the same week as he announced withdrawal, Youngkin released a “campaign-style video appearing to cast him as the successor to President Ronald Reagan.” The ERIC action is nothing but a sop Trump and other conspiratorial election deniers, as Virginia now joins the parade of those who continue to sow anxiety about our elections and undermine the legitimacy of the system itself.
Perhaps the red states care more about election integrity as a slogan than they do about its implementation. “States claim they want to combat illegal voting & clean voter rolls — but then leave the best & only group capable of detecting double voting across state lines” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, tweeted earlier this month.
Nonetheless, observers do not think the defections are over, and question whether ERIC will survive. It may limp along as a coalition of northern and western states but will not be as effective as it could or needs to be had it retained its national scope. More importantly, these actions further exacerbate the division between states in how they combat fraud. And they further undermine the foundation of election integrity that serves as the basis of democratic legitimacy in the nation.