It had the makings of an election reform bill Republicans and Democrats could get behind.
Senate Bill 710 proposed authorizing Oklahoma to join a multistate cooperative whose members share voter and motor vehicle data to keep their voter rolls updated and root out fraud. Member states agree to mail voter registration information to residents identified as eligible but unregistered to vote.
“Oklahoma already has one of the best election systems in the nation, but these measures will further strengthen and modernize that system,” wrote bill sponsor Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, after the proposal cleared the Senate on a 42-3 vote in March 2021. “It’s important that we maintain an accurate voter database and encourage eligible voters to participate in our election process.”
Gov. Kevin Stitt signed it into law in late April 2021. But two years later, Oklahoma lawmakers and the state’s top election official have soured on partnering with the Electronic Registration Information Center, citing dissatisfaction with its leadership, uncertainty about membership costs and data privacy concerns.
The reversal comes as officials in several other GOP-led states, including Florida, Iowa and Ohio, have opted to pull out of ERIC in recent months.
In the months immediately following the 2020 presidential election, where unfounded claims of widespread election fraud by former President Donald Trump prompted many Republican-controlled legislatures to seek more restrictive voting laws, ERIC remained an uncontroversial organization. Its bipartisan coalition included 31 member states and Washington, D.C. In 2022, the organization says it found more than two million voters who moved across states, 200,000 duplicate registrations and 65,000 deceased voters. That information is disclosed in a series of reports, generated using a mix of state data and social security death records, that ERIC sends to member states every 60 days.
As the 2024 presidential election draws nearer, ERIC has increasingly been targeted by groups like The Gateway Pundit and Thomas More Society with claims that it is funded by partisan interests and shared voter data without consent. Media and fact-checking organizations have debunked these claims as false or misleading.
While ERIC received initial start-up funds in 2012 from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which took contributions from billionaire philanthropist George Soros, the organization has been funded almost entirely through member state dues over the past decade. ERIC has provided limited voter data to researchers and only after receiving permission from states wishing to participate in the voluntary program.
Yet Oklahoma’s House Bill 2052 would require any multistate voter list maintenance organization the state joins to agree to several terms, including agreeing not to share data with any third party and not requiring its members to notify individuals marked as unregistered but eligible to vote. The latter provision would effectively bar Oklahoma from joining ERIC. The measure cleared the Senate last week and may soon reach Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk.
“We’re setting forth these guidelines so it protects the state and data privacy and so whatever organization we wind up joining, they don’t sell that information,” lead sponsor Eric Roberts, R-Oklahoma City, said in a February committee hearing. Roberts was among the 38 state legislators who signed a December 2020 letter urging Congress to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
Asked if there is an example or evidence of ERIC sharing data without permission, Roberts said the measure is precautionary but said other states have had concerns. Roberts did not return phone calls seeking comment. An effort to reach him at his office at the Capitol was unsuccessful.
Daniel Griffith, the senior policy director for Secure Democracy USA, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve voter access and public confidence in elections, said unfounded claims about ERIC began circulating in early 2022 and accelerated as most states prepared to enter a new legislative session. Meanwhile, several Republican member states began seeking a series of changes aimed at making some ERIC services optional and tweaking its leadership structure.
In public statements and interviews, election officials in most states that have pulled out have cited dissatisfaction with the organization to adopt most of those changes, including making outreach to eligible but unregistered voters optional, as driving their decision. Member states did vote in a March meeting to eliminate non-voting ex-officio board members, which some election officials feared could hold political bias. ERIC bylaws require four-fifths of members to agree to proposed changes.
“Everybody seemed to be of the agreement that keeping clean voter rolls was something in everyone’s best interest, and the states were cooperating with each other to do that until it kind of popped off a few months ago,” Griffith said.
State Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax said that while some information about ERIC has been “exaggerated or untrue,” putting guardrails on a potential partnership would be helpful.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watch, Ziriax said claims that ERIC is trying to pad rolls with phantom voters to steal elections are unfounded, but added that the state has a legitimate interest in ensuring sensitive data isn’t shared with an unauthorized party. While there is no evidence of an ERIC data breach, issues were rampant with Crosscheck, a now-defunct multistate voter database that folded in 2019 following allegations it removed eligible voters and exposed sensitive information.
Ziriax also said he’s spoken with election officials in other states who have praised the ability of ERIC to catch duplicate registrations and out-of-state movers, but expressed concerns about the cost of mailing information to eligible but unregistered voters and the risk that notices might be sent to people who aren’t actually permitted to vote.
“What they really want to focus on is the voter list maintenance side,” said Ziriax, who worked with Roberts to write HB2052. “Trying to find people who have moved or have registered in multiple states as opposed to the other side of it.”
To join ERIC, states must pay a one-time $25,000 fee and annual dues based on the state’s voting age population, which in the 2022-2023 fiscal year ranged from about $26,000 up to $116,000. Costs vary for mailing notices to unregistered but eligible voters, which is required under ERIC bylaws at least once every two years. In 2018, Iowa officials said it would cost about $60,000 to send that information to 300,000 people.
ERIC requires its members to mail notices based on the report it creates, but it says states can and should use other state data to filter out those they believe are ineligible to vote, such as known noncitizens and individuals serving out a felony sentence.
Though it can’t be directly attributed to mail outreach campaigns, several states have reported success in increasing their registration numbers after joining the organization. In the four years after Colorado joined ERIC, from 2012 to 2016, the state saw registration among its voting-eligible population increase from 82 to 90%.
Cole Allen, a democracy fellow with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, said it’s disappointing the state has opted not to join an organization that could encourage more people to register to vote. Oklahoma’s voting-eligible population is approximately 2.8 million, well above the 2.25 million residents who were registered to vote as of April 30, according to estimates from the U.S. Elections Project. Oklahoma has historically had one of the nation’s lowest voter participation rates.
While Oklahoma offers a voter registration application to driver’s license applicants over 18, the registration process can be cumbersome for those who initially opt against and later change their minds. Unlike most states, Oklahoma has yet to fully launch an online voter registration system despite being authorized to do so in 2015.
Oklahoma making the registration process easier and providing notice to unregistered voters would likely boost participation, Allen said, adding that there’s nothing stopping state officials from doing outreach independent of ERIC.
ERIC alternatives are scarce
If HB2052 becomes law, Oklahoma could join an ERIC alternative that doesn’t require voter outreach and meets certain data privacy guidelines. Conservative groups and states that have recently departed ERIC have floated the idea of creating a new system.
Even if such an organization is established, it would likely have fewer member states than ERIC and therefore be less effective at identifying ineligible voters, said Griffith with Secure Democracy USA.
“This is data that only state governments really have access to that allows you to do that,” he said. “The extent that this can be done securely and have an agreement amongst all the state governments, that’s the ideal scenario.”
Asked what Oklahoma is doing to clean its voter rolls in the absence of joining a multistate organization, Ziriax said the state election board matches state health department death reports against voter rolls monthly and sends address confirmation notices in odd-numbered years to voters who did not cast a ballot in two consecutive general election cycles.
He also referenced House Bill 1950, which Stitt signed into law on Tuesday, as potentially beneficial in helping the state keep its voter registration records updated. The measure authorizes the state election board to obtain official death records from other states and remove individuals matched to the state’s voter rolls.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.