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Missouri ditched an election partnership. Voters will feel the consequences.

A white sign with blue letters reads "Election Day Voter Parking Only" while two people walk on the sidewalk nearby.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Pedestrians walk past the polling location on the campus of Rockhurst University on April 4, 2023.

Officials in Missouri voting offices worry about Election Day problems, especially for voters who have recently moved, since the state pulled out of a collaboration that helps check voter rolls for accuracy.

Eric Fey is bracing for Election Day snarls because of a decision his state made last year.

Missouri pulled out of a collaboration known as the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which helps states keep voter rolls accurate — such as flagging when people move. Fey, the Democratic director of elections in St. Louis County, expects delays when people discover at the polls that the address on their voter registration record is incorrect.

“More people will be doing change-of-address forms at polling places and at the election office on Election Day,” said Fey, who is also president of a statewide local election authorities group. “At least for those voters, it takes longer, and there is a longer line.”

Missouri and eight other states — Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia — left ERIC in the last two years.

The move, driven by Republican leaders, followed on the heels of a baseless article published by a St. Louis conservative website that alleged ERIC is a left-wing plot funded by billionaire George Soros, who is often the target of antisemitic conspiracies.

In fact, ERIC is funded by its member states — now 24 of them, plus Washington, D.C. — and helps them kick ineligible voters off the rolls as well as register new ones. It received startup funding years ago from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has over its history partnered with Soros’ Open Society Foundations along with many other funders, including conservative ones.

In Missouri, local election officials who must deal with the consequences of losing access to ERIC’s tools weren’t consulted on the decision to leave the collaboration. That’s according to a highly critical January report from the state’s Republican auditor, who said there were no plans “to fully replace the benefits received from the membership.”

Thomas Castulik, senior logistics captain, performs a test on voting equipment on Feb. 27, 2024, at the St. Louis County Board Of Elections in St. Ann, Missouri.
Christine Tannous
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thomas Castulik, senior logistics captain, performs a test on voting equipment on Feb. 27, 2024, at the St. Louis County Board Of Elections in St. Ann, Missouri.

Duplicating what ERIC does is difficult. Secretaries of states that left ERIC have tried to find or create another system that does the same data-matching and cleaning — and failed. When states leave ERIC without an effective replacement, it can make their voter databases less accurate. That in turn can feed bad-faith arguments about election fraud, experts worry, in an environment where such arguments have already been used to justify voting restrictions in multiple states.

Another underappreciated consequence is the one worrying Fey: People in those states who haven’t updated their voter registration after moving will likely find it more challenging to cast a ballot.

Census data shows the problem disproportionately affects people of color, low-income Americans and younger people because they move more frequently. Voters in those groups are more likely to register as Democrats and have long experienced a host of voter-suppression tactics.

“Mobility is the biggest challenge election officials face in terms of keeping accurate voter lists. Routine, quality list maintenance is especially important with highly mobile populations,” said Shane Hamlin, executive director of ERIC, in an email to the Center for Public Integrity.

It also means more challenges for local election offices. In St. Louis County, it’s up to Fey, his Republican counterpart Rick Stream and their staff to update the records, which eventually go into Missouri’s statewide voter registration database. The office used to have help with this massive task through ERIC. Now it doesn’t.

“Many people in the 21st century feel like, ‘I updated my address with pick-your-other-government-agency, but it doesn’t get to the election office. I thought I did all this stuff. Why don’t you have my information updated?’” Fey noted.

Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, explains paperwork to a candidate at the board offices in St. Ann, Missouri, on Feb. 27, 2024.
Christine Tannous
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, explains paperwork to a candidate at the board offices in St. Ann, Missouri, on Feb. 27, 2024.

Stream also saw ERIC as a beneficial tool. He thinks it is unfortunate the state left the effort.

“It gave us information that we couldn’t have received any other way,” Stream said. “ERIC was good in that it crossed state lines.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who was in his first year in that office when the state joined ERIC, made the decision to pull out. He said in an interview that he doesn’t remember if he consulted with local election authorities about that decision.

“It’s not something you would normally consult them on,” said Ashcroft, who said he instead talked to other secretaries of state and his office’s information technology staff. “It’s not their work. I am responsible for the statewide voter registration system.”

But local election authorities are responsible for keeping voter rolls up to date in their jurisdictions. It’s that data that feeds into the statewide system.

Ashcroft confirmed that local election authorities are the only ones who add or remove voters from the rolls in Missouri.

“When there are well-defined, credible opportunities to promote voting, he is going in the opposite direction,” said Nimrod “Rod” Chapel, a lawyer and president of the Missouri State Conference of the NAACP, who is concerned about the departure from ERIC. “It’s going to hurt all Missourians, but without a doubt Black and brown Missourians who are moving at greater rates, whether to find jobs or communities that they can live in.”

Here’s the problem states face: While the Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires states to implement electronic voter registration databases, it does not require them to format the data in a way that allows for comparisons. That complicates efforts to determine if a voter has left one state for another. The federal government also doesn’t provide all the information states need to keep their voter rolls up to date.

“These are issues that have fallen under the radar,” said Michael Morse, a lawyer and political scientist who teaches election law at the University of Pennsylvania.

ERIC was built to address these problems. Election-Day voter registration, which includes the last-minute address updates that Fey is worried about, dropped in Minnesota after the state joined ERIC in 2014. These same-day registrations accounted for more than 10% of total votes in the two elections before that year. They fell to less than 6% by 2022.

When other states leave ERIC, it affects not only them but also the states that remain, said David Maeda, the Minnesota elections director and secretary of ERIC. For every state that leaves, that’s one less to check with for Minnesotans who moved.

“It’s been a really difficult year for all of us in it,” Maeda said. “We’re getting less data — including the very large Florida and Texas.”

Mobile voters a challenge for election officials

Voters whose information is out-of-date in their state’s voter registration database may end up traveling to multiple locations on Election Day just to cast a ballot. They can’t request a mail-in ballot. They won’t receive election-related mail. Canvassing candidates or issue-focused petitioners will not be able to seek them out to talk about policy ahead of the election.

“If we want these key voting blocs to turn out in November, we need to make sure they hear early and often from local organizers and trusted messengers in their own communities,” said Zo Tobi, director of donor organizing for the Movement Voter Project, which invests in voter groups focused on often-marginalized populations such as youth and communities of color.

The impact for voters won’t be clear until they attempt to vote. There’s no way to know yet how much change-of-address work is backing up in local election offices that no longer have access to ERIC.

David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, helped launch ERIC while director of Pew’s elections program. He expects longer lines and more provisional ballots, offered to people when certain registration issues crop up. Such ballots take longer for voters to fill out and have a higher chance of not being counted.

Keeping voter registration databases up-to-date is never-ending work. A Pew Charitable Trusts report from 2012, the year ERIC launched, estimated that one out of every eight voter registration records in the U.S. was inaccurate.

That need to conduct regular “list maintenance” is regulated by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the motor voter law.

The law requires states to appoint a chief official to oversee elections. The official is also charged with making sure the state makes a “reasonable effort” to identify voters who have entered the prison system, moved, died or become otherwise unable to vote.

One stark example that crossed the line: Leading up to the 2000 presidential election, officials in the city of St. Louis moved more than 30,000 voters to “inactive” lists, alarming Black leaders. On Election Day, hundreds of people couldn’t vote. Poll workers calling headquarters to verify eligibility couldn’t get through on jammed lines.

Voters sent to the election board’s main office in downtown St. Louis to plead their case were still standing in line at 10 p.m. trying to vote.

In the fraught aftermath, a federal consent decree required St. Louis Board of Election commissioners to change their policies for maintaining accurate registration records and properly notify voters of their registration status.

In the book “Keeping Down the Black Vote,” authors Frances Fox Piven, Lorraine C. Minnite and Margaret Groarke argue that election officials are far quicker to purge than to make sure everyone gets the opportunity to register.

Federal law contributes to disparities in registration rates.

For instance, the motor voter law requires states to offer voter registration at driver’s license facilities in a way that integrates it with those agencies’ own applications for a seamless experience. For public assistance offices and disability agencies, the law requires only that they offer separate voter registration forms. And those are places more likely to reach lower-income people.

A requirement for registration options at unemployment offices was pulled from the bill by Senate Republicans before it passed, according to “Keeping Down the Black Vote.”

“California Republican Bill Thomas [of the House of Representatives] said, ‘All of us are interested in extending the right to vote to all. But at unemployment and welfare offices only? … If you want to pick a party affiliation of these people, take a guess. You won’t pick ours,’” the book’s authors noted, citing news coverage at the time.

Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, walks past a decorated doorway Feb. 27, 2024, at the board offices in St. Ann, Missouri.
Christine Tannous
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Eric Fey, Democratic director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections, walks past a decorated doorway Feb. 27, 2024, at the board offices in St. Ann, Missouri.

‘Horrible and misleading’ information

The St. Louis-based site that published the series about ERIC, the Gateway Pundit, grew in popularity after promoting lies about the 2020 election. In 2021, a Reuters investigation found the Gateway Pundit cited in more than 100 threatening and hostile communications toward local election workers since that election. The website is now the subject of two defamation lawsuits.

Its ERIC pieces began publishing on Jan. 20, 2022, and within a week Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin ended the state’s membership. Ardoin’s spokesman told Votebeat the decision had nothing to do with the Gateway Pundit. Alabama followed nearly a year later.

In March 2023, Trump used his Truth Social platform to encourage states to end their membership, saying without evidence that it “‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up.”

The same day, Florida, Missouri and West Virginia officials all released statements that they were leaving ERIC — Missouri’s secretary of state said he was leading them in doing so. Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Texas withdrew over the next several months.

The watchdog group American Oversight obtained emails from Ashcroft’s office that show one of his top lieutenants expressing concern before the state pulled out from ERIC about the “horrible and misleading” information circulating about the organization.

“ERIC is never connected to any state’s voter registration system,” Hamlin, ERIC’s executive director, wrote in an open letter on the organization’s website as misinformation mounted. “Members retain complete control over their voter rolls and they use the reports we provide in ways that comply with federal and state laws.”

For states that left ERIC, trying to recreate in short order what officials there spent years and millions of dollars developing has not gone well.

“Virginia paid $29,000 in September to regain access to just a sliver of the data they used to obtain via the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC,” Votebeat reported in December. “Alabama and Missouri officials took months to come up with new plans for cleaning voter rolls, landing on plans that are less rigorous than ERIC.”

Public Integrity requested any documents from the Missouri Secretary of State’s office detailing current voter list maintenance efforts. The agency said some information could not be released publicly but provided a memo sent to local election officials. That memo, said St. Louis County’s Fey, had no additional guidance or assistance beyond what the state offered while an ERIC member — but without the tools ERIC provided.

Ashcroft, the Missouri secretary of state, said he is “looking at other ways to get and massage the data.” But he said the local offices still receive change-of-address and death reports as they did both before and during the state’s ERIC membership. He said he thought the reports are “indistinguishable” from ERIC’s.

“I don’t think there is a vacuum left by ERIC,” he said.

Brianna Lennon, the county clerk in Boone County, Missouri, disagrees that the information local officials receive now is equally good.

“The reports look the same, but the background data is not the same because there’s no information to show where people died out of state,” said Lennon, previously the state’s deputy director of elections.

Boone County, home to the University of Missouri-Columbia, benefited from ERIC in a number of ways, she said.

“Because we are a college town, people do change addresses quite a bit,” Lennon said.

One tool pitched to election officials as an ERIC alternative is EagleAI. It’s supported by Cleta Mitchell, who aided former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and, Rolling Stone magazine reported, pressed state officials to leave ERIC. States that did so “no longer have the burden” of offering voter registration to the lion’s share of citizens who are eligible but haven’t registered, Mitchell said in an emailed response to Public Integrity. She also claimed that those states are doing as well as or better with list maintenance as before.

EagleAI performs matches with public data such as property records. That type of matching, election experts warn, produces too many false positives to be used as a reliable method for cleaning voter registration databases.

Anyone familiar with the history of list maintenance knows how easily it can go off the rails.

Shortly after the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002, Kansas officials signed agreements with Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri and began sharing data for such work through a program known as Interstate CrossCheck.

In 2019, it was shut down. A federal audit found security vulnerabilities, and voters sued after portions of their Social Security numbers were exposed.

Now, some former ERIC states — such as Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Florida — are creating data-sharing agreements that strike David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as a worrisome echo of that history.

“States doing these new agreements are basically doing the same thing as what Kansas CrossCheck was, and we already know it was no good,” Kimball said. “I don’t know what they expect, other than to sow distrust in voting systems.”

Ashcroft, the Missouri secretary of state, didn’t like a commitment members have to make when they join ERIC: attempt to reach out to 95% of eligible but unregistered voters in the state to provide them information about how to register.

In his 2023 letter about ending the state’s membership, he said ERIC “focuses” on adding names to voter rolls by requiring states to contact individuals who “already had an opportunity to register to vote and made the conscious decision to not be registered.”

In this Nov. 7, 2017, photo, Republican Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in Valley Park, Mo.
Jeff Roberson
Associated Press
In this Nov. 7, 2017, photo, Republican Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft speaks in Valley Park, Mo.

In fact, the ERIC bylaws attempt to make sure its members aren’t bothering people.

“Members shall not be required to initiate contact with eligible or possibly eligible voters more than once at the same address,” the bylaws note, “nor shall members be required to contact any individual who has affirmatively confirmed their desire not to be contacted for purposes of voter registration.”

Asked why he doesn’t want to do that outreach, Ashcroft said Missourians don’t need it.

“Everybody has a chance to [register to] vote all the time,” Ashcroft said. “They can do it on their cell phones or smartphones, they can do it on their computer. That’s a disingenuous question.”

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization that receives support from readers and foundations. It has in the past received grants from the Open Society Foundations, most recently in 2015, and Pew Charitable Trusts, most recently in 2010, both mentioned in this story. Donors do not dictate coverage.

Janelle O'Dea is a data reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.
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