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Virginia becomes the latest GOP-governed state to quit a voter data partnership

A voter fills out his ballot at an early voting location in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 26, 2022.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
A voter fills out his ballot at an early voting location in Alexandria, Va., on Sept. 26, 2022.

Updated May 11, 2023 at 6:47 PM ET

Virginia on Thursday became the latest Republican-led state to withdraw from a multistate partnership that until early 2022 was considered a widely trusted, bipartisan effort to share voter information.

The move makes Virginia the eighth state to leave the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, amid fringe conservative media reports and conspiracy theories attempting to connect the group to liberal donors and activists.

Virginia's departure is notable because the state was a founding member of the compact in 2012, under former GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell.

As recently as three months ago, Republican voting officials in other states that have since pulled out were praising it as a "godsend" and "one of the best fraud-fighting tools we've got."

But in a letter obtained by member station VPM, Virginia's commissioner of elections, Susan Beals, said a slew of concerns caused her to rethink the state's membership. She cited the recent exit of nearby states, "increasing concerns regarding stewardship, maintenance, privacy, and confidentiality of voter information" and "controversy surrounding the historical sharing of data with outside organizations leveraged for political purposes."

ERIC did previously share, for research purposes, some anonymized data with an outside elections organization led by ERIC's founder David Becker, but each state that participated did so voluntarily.

"We will pursue other information arrangements with our neighboring states and look to other opportunities to partner with states in an apolitical fashion," Beals wrote.

Beals was appointed to the post last year by Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. She previously served as an aide to state Sen. Amanda Chase, who went on to become arguably the state's most prominent election denier.

Beals did not immediately respond to requests for comment. ERIC's executive director, Shane Hamlin, confirmed that the organization received Virginia's resignation Thursday, and Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, confirmed in a statement that Virginia was withdrawing.

Youngkin, who has hinted at a possible presidential run, dodged questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election until after he secured the GOP gubernatorial nomination. He later acknowledged the vote was legitimate but campaigned for candidates who felt otherwise, including Arizona gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake.

Delegate Marcus Simon, a Democrat who previously led the House of Delegates' election committee, accused Youngkin and Beals of "going full MAGA." He argued Virginia's voter rolls would become worse as a result of the move, a sentiment previously expressed by voting experts after other states departed ERIC.

"This was to prevent all the things that you Republicans say could happen — people voting across state lines or voting in more than one state," Simon said. "It's data driven. And it's science based. And apparently, we're leaving, because somebody in the administration wants to align themselves with these MAGA Republicans that believe the election was stolen."

A bipartisan consortium

ERIC is the only way states currently have to share election data, as well as data from state motor vehicle agencies and other government departments.

The organization anonymizes the data it receives from states, then compares it to spit out reports that local election administrators can use to correct outdated addresses, remove dead voters, and reach out to eligible people who aren't registered.

For the first 10 years, ERIC grew steadily with states like South Carolina, Connecticut and, most recently, New Jersey joining.

And one of its biggest calling cards was helping to catch the small amount of voter fraud that does happen every federal election. A January report from the Florida Department of State Office of Election Crimes and Security said it had "used data provided by ERIC to identify" hundreds of voters who appeared to have voted in Florida and in another ERIC member state in the same election.

Florida has since announced its departure from ERIC.

Ryan Germany, who worked as general counsel for Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, saidat an elections event recently that he saw how ERIC transformed the accuracy of their voter lists.

"We have just seen that list maintenance is so much better with ERIC," Germany said. "It's because of the cross-state data, yes. But even without it, it makes for better in-state maintenance, it makes for catching more dead people that we might not catch through our normal state process."

But recently, the organization has become the latest aspect of American voting to turn polarized.

A far-right websitetargeted the organization last year with a series of articles claiming ERIC was a left-wing plot to steal elections. That set off a chain reaction of grassroots pressure in conservative states.

Copyright 2023 VPM

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