Q+A  

Claims against nonpartisan voter record system are baseless says former West Virginia Secretary of State

Natalie Tennant discusses the impact of states leaving the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a resource for maintaining accurate voter records across state lines

Photo of several voting booths set up in an auditorium

Accurate voter rolls — who is eligible to vote and registered, who has moved, deceased or is otherwise ineligible — are essential data points for running elections that are secure, accurate and accessible. The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) was formed in 2012 by election officials in seven states — including four Republicans to support partner states in maintaining accurate voter rolls. It has enabled state election administrators to update tens of millions of voter records and has been widely cited as an essential nonpartisan resource for election integrity.

Since early 2022, a trend of state departures from ERIC has been underway starting with Louisiana, and most recently Iowa and Ohio in March of 2023. Driven by accusations of partisan bias and discontent over certain ERIC practices and policies, the departures pose grave risks for election integrity, and practical concerns for future elections. More broadly, the departures are another example of a continuing trend of increased partisanship afflicting aspects of election administration that were previously noncontroversial and supported across political parties.

To get a clearer sense of what this means on the ground for election administration, the Ash Center spoke with Natalie Tennant, a 2022 Fall IOP fellow, who served eight years as West Virginia’s elected Secretary of State. This conversation took place as a part of the Ash Center’s Democracy Exchange, an ongoing series that features perspectives, ideas and analysis from leading scholars and practitioners on improving the foundations and practice of 21st-century democracy.

Ash: From the perspective of a former election official, why is this recent trend of states leaving ERIC such a big story? How did it go from a widely respected resource to a top political target?

Natalie Tennant: As a former Secretary of State who implemented the ERIC program in West Virginia, I know the serious, detailed approach my staff and I took before we committed to joining it. For several years as ERIC was being proposed and developed — and even after it was started in other states, we researched, questioned, and talked with our own state agencies and lawmakers to understand if it would be a good fit for us. After we committed to join, I even had to go back to the legislature to pass legislation to authorize us to use it.

I think other states engaged in similarly rigorous reviews before joining ERIC. This is why it has become a significant story of states leaving. For more than a decade, ERIC has been a proven, tested, and praised program that has calmed concerns of voters, assisted election administrators, and strengthened the integrity of the election process. Now it is being attacked with baseless claims and no facts in the name of scoring political points.

It looks as though this retreat from ERIC is the next step in spreading disinformation as a way to weaken and sew distrust in our election system.

Why are some states leaving ERIC? What are some of the reasons given, and is their merit to these claims?

Considering the praise previously given by these secretaries of state about ERIC, many of the reasons for leaving are shallow with no genuine thought behind them. These departing secretaries say ERIC is run by a partisan group when actually, the participating states are in charge. And when a state becomes a member, it has voting rights and helps to make decisions because ERIC is owned, funded, and managed by the participating states.

They question the security and access of the data, but the states have agreed on safeguards to protect data and ensure its proper and limited use.

The most aggressive reason given is these secretaries don’t want to conduct the agreed upon voter outreach. ERIC requires its participating states to notify their eligible but not yet registered voters that they can register to vote. We are notified when our taxes are due, or when our drivers license expires. Why can’t we be notified when we are eligible to register to vote? To leave because of this reason is shortsighted and a disservice to the citizens of their states.

Natalie Tennant speaks to an audience while sitting at a desk
“It looks as though this retreat from ERIC is the next step in spreading disinformation as a way to weaken and sew distrust in our election system,” Tennant says, pictured here speaking at an Ash Center event in February 2023.

How will it impact upcoming elections in the states that have left the network?

The impact will be felt not only for the departing states, but also for the remaining states because there will be fewer voting records to check and compare.

Secretaries in Florida, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia touted the work of ERIC in helping to clean their voter rolls or catch people who double voted. Now as they remove their states from the program, that information and reassurance are no longer available, bringing worry and distrust in the election process in non-participating and participating states.

The pressure of these decisions will be felt by the state staffers and local and county election officials who have come to rely on this tool.

It’s been reported in Votebeat that West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner’s staff have privately expressed disbelief about the move to their counterparts in other states and have acknowledged there is no factual basis for the departure, three officials who have participated in the conversations confirmed to Votebeat.

What fills the role of ERIC in states that have left the network? What alternative networks are in place or in development?

The head shaking question is what can be used in place of ERIC, and unfortunately right now there is not an answer that can fill the void. As I said, ERIC was carefully developed and researched so it would be nonpartisan and attract red and blue states to collaborate.

There have been reports of other states and organizations trying to get something together but there doesn’t seem to be enough time to produce a program to this level that is nonpartisan, tested, and trusted.

How much does the media and information about elections come into play here? Especially given your experience as a journalist, what are the ERIC departures signaling to you about how election administration decisions are being made and the information environment?

Journalism plays a critical role in providing information about ERIC. Reports point to the fringe website The Gateway Pundit as the first to spread false information about ERIC. That website continued the pounding of untruths to other secretaries until they gave in.

Now it will be the media’s responsibility to set the record straight. It doesn’t do the election and advocacy community any good to just continue to talk to ourselves and say how terrible this is. We must share the correct information with our local media contacts, influencers, lawmakers, and activists.

As a former local television reporter, I know it will take local journalists to press their state election officials about why they have left such a power tool. State elected officials don’t worry too much about national media outlets because they don’t vote for them. But local news reaches local voters.

The challenge is local news reporters are often young, inexperienced and timid and don’t have time to research and ask the follow up question. They often only take what is in a press release or what an official is saying. It will be up to us to provide and demand the other side of the story.

Even as we see partisan rifts continuing to grow around how elections are run, can you envision a set of reforms that are likely to get traction? Where do you see particular opportunity to enhance election administration and with support from Republicans and Democrats?

The ERIC program is an example of reforms that could have received support from Republicans and Democrats alike. It started that way and had a history of benefiting voters, election officials and states of all political persuasion because list maintenance and voter registration are not partisan — unless people make it that way.

Other specific reforms for collaboration are an increase in transparency through ballot tracking programs, text messaging to voters, and available education about the election process. Enhanced security for election administrators and workers could be an area of agreement for both sides as we continue to search for ways to retain experienced workers and attract younger professionals to the field of elections. Voters want to see both sides working together especially if it benefits the electorate and not for a political move.

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