ST. LOUIS (AP) — Three Republican-led states on Monday pulled out of a bipartisan effort among states to ensure accurate voter lists, undermining a system with a demonstrated record of combating voter fraud.
The moves, encouraged by former President Donald Trump, are the latest indication of how conspiracy theories related to the 2020 presidential outcome continue to ripple throughout the Republican Party and upend long-established traditions in how the country administers elections.
Chief election officials in Florida, Missouri and West Virginia notified the Electronic Registration Information Center, more commonly known as ERIC, that they would depart the voluntary program, which has long been comprised of both Republican-led and Democratic-led states. They join Louisiana, which left last year, and Alabama, which previously announced plans to withdraw this year.
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, in a letter to member states Monday, also threatened to withdraw. That came just weeks after the Republican defended the system, telling reporters it was “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have.”
Florida and its 14.4 million registered voters pose a considerable loss for the data-sharing group, which relies heavily on member states to produce reports on voters who may have died or those who have moved to another state. Its reports also help states identify and ultimately prosecute people who vote in multiple states.
The system has been credited in Maryland with identifying some 66,000 potentially deceased voters and 778,000 people who may have moved out of state since 2013. In Georgia, officials said nearly 100,000 voters no longer eligible to vote in the state had been removed based on data provided by ERIC.
Yet the effort to improve election integrity and thwart voter fraud — which Republican lawmakers and local officials commonly cite as priorities — has become a target of suspicion after a series of online posts early last year questioning its funding and purpose. One conspiracy involves billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who has long been a target of conspiracy theories, and claims that he funded the voter data-sharing system.
While the system received initial funding from the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, that money was separate from funding provided to Pew by a Soros-affiliated organization that went to an unrelated effort, said ERIC’s executive director, Shane Hamlin. The effort has since been funded through annual dues by member states.
On Monday, Hamlin said in a statement that ERIC will “continue our work on behalf of our remaining member states in improving the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increasing access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.”
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said in an interview that he decided to leave after concluding that changes he had been advocating for would not be made and that it was unlikely more states surrounding his would join the effort. Among the changes he sought was dropping a requirement for member states to send mailings to eligible but unregistered voters and removing what he described as partisan influences from the program.
“I’m not against working with other states, but it has to be done in a way that is well done and that the people in the state can trust in it,” Ashcroft said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I can’t imagine ERIC will get to that point.”
Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, said state officials had “lost confidence in ERIC.” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner expressed similar frustrations, adding he did not expect the departure from the program to affect his state’s ability to maintain accurate voter rolls.
Trump also weighed in Monday on his social media platform, calling on all Republican-led states to “immediately pull out of ERIC, the terrible Voter Registration System that ‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up.”
With no national voter registration clearinghouse, ERIC is the only data-sharing program among states. It was started in 2012 by seven states and was bipartisan from the beginning, with four of the founding states led by Republicans. After the states officially depart, participation will drop to 28 states and the District of Columbia.
The departures have frustrated state election officials involved in the effort and have demonstrated how deeply election conspiracies have spread throughout the Republican Party.
“Election officials who pull out of ERIC are primarily harming their own state’s ability to keep their voter list accurate,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement Monday to the AP. “It’s odd and disturbing to me that any official would choose validating misinformation over being part of a collaborative that has the sole and well-established purpose of improving the integrity of our elections.”
Brad Ashwell, Florida director of the advocacy group All Voting is Local, said the governor was “caving to the interests of conspiracy theorists” with the decision to leave ERIC.
“This is supposed to be the party of election integrity, and this is the best tool that they have to do that,” Ashwell said.
Not all Republican-led states had been reevaluating their participation in the program. In a recent survey by the AP, election offices in 23 states and the District of Columbia said they had no intention of leaving, including eight led or controlled by Republicans. At the time, that included Ohio.
In response to the survey, Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, called ERIC an “effective tool for ensuring the integrity” of his state’s voter rolls. Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said he recently appealed to representatives from three other Republican-led states to join the system.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Texas have introduced legislation that, if passed and signed into law, would require the state to leave the system. In Oklahoma, proposed legislation would prohibit the state from joining.
In California, Kansas and New Hampshire, lawmakers have introduced bills that would enable their states to join it, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting legislation in the states. New York is another high-population state that is not currently a member.
Cassidy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.