Michael Adams, the Kentucky Secretary of State, has filed a motion with a court asking if the state can stop using the ERIC national voter database. He lists a number of reasons that look reasonable on their face. But, with red state after red state pulling out of ERIC in what looks like a plot to further impair voting by Democrats, there’s a question as to Adams’s real motives. So, let’s take a look.
In November 2017, Judicial Watch sued Kentucky SOS Alison Lundergan Grimes and the state itself, alleging that Grimes’s office was not purging the voter rolls of ineligible voters, as required by law. Grimes responded by saying that doing so was an extremely labor-intensive process, and her office was not funded adequately to take on that task.
As noted by Wikipedia, “Judicial Watch is an American conservative activist group that files Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits to investigate claimed misconduct by government officials. Founded in 1994, JW has primarily targeted Democrats.”
Knowing this about Judicial Watch, most assumed this was just another of their regular baseless attacks, and didn’t pay much attention. But then the Feds got involved.
Specifically, the Department of Justice intervened in the case to say that Judicial Watch’s lawsuit was valid, that lack of funding wasn’t an excuse, and the state had to start cleaning up its voter rolls. (I’m really summarizing here.)
One of the ways Kentucky could comply with the consent decree was to start using the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. This is a database into which states submit records of people moving or dying, thus enabling other states to check their voter rolls against that database and remove anyone who has moved but not changed or cancelled their voter registration. Judicial Watch pushed for the state to use this system, including filing suit against our current SOS, Michael Adams, asking that his office and the state Board of Elections speed up the process of implementation.
ERIC conspiracy theories and their effects
As noted by the Brennan Center, ERIC seems like a no-brainer when it comes to keeping your voter rolls clean. It was founded over a decade ago by seven states, four of which were run by Republicans. From the article, “It collects data from state sources, such as election boards and departments of motor vehicles, along with federal data on deaths and changes of address. It then produces reports for participating state election officials that they can use to update their voter rolls, remove ineligible voters, investigate rare cases of potentially illegal voting, and help eligible but unregistered Americans complete their voter registration. Currently, 28 states and Washington, DC, are members.”
But recently, conspiracy theories about ERIC have bubbled up out of the right-wing ecosystem, started by — you guessed it — The Former Guy, who accused it of “pumping the rolls” for Democrats. There’s also suspicion of ERIC because it was set up with help from the Pew Foundation, so it must be a liberal plot. Never mind that “ERIC is currently owned, funded, and managed by the participating states, each of which has a vote on the board of directors.”
All of this is nonsense, of course, but that hasn’t mattered. Red states have begun pulling out of ERIC in response to the crazies on the right. And of course, whenever a state leaves, that makes the ERIC database less effective, since that state’s information can’t be used to help clean the rolls.
Which brings us to today.
The Adams filing
(Note: both filings are included at the bottom of this article.)
On May 26 of this year, KY SOS Adams filed a brief in Federal district court, asking for clarification of the consent decree. Specifically, he is asking “if the Consent Decree requires utilization of ERIC — regardless of cost and value — if other resources may be used effectively to identify and ultimately remove voters who should come off our rolls.”
Why is Adams looking to get out of using ERIC? Here are his stated reasons:
- Some of the states that have pulled out of ERIC, or who are not currently members (Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, Tennessee) happen to be states where many Kentucky voters either move to or come from. Thus, losing their data makes ERIC less helpful to Kentucky.
- As states leave ERIC, the cost for the remaining states goes up. Kentucky’s dues for 2023 were a little over $40,000. This is projected to increase to as much as $65,000 due to states pulling out.
Adams says that his office has begun exploring alternatives to ERIC, including getting some of the data provided by ERIC through other means. He is also talking with other states about doing data-sharing state t0 state.
The filing concludes with this: “While Secretary Adams has previously defended the ERIC organization and process from misinformation and conspiracy theories, political developments outside our state and outside his control draw into question the continued usefulness of ERIC to Kentucky.”
The KDP response
The Kentucky Democratic Party filed a response to Adams’s “request for clarification,” noting that use of ERIC was indeed a best practice, and that leaving it would actually harm Kentucky’s ability to keep its rolls up to date.
The filing also goes right at the “political developments outside our state” that Adams references:
There is a national Republican movement by some of the more aggressively right-wing states to leave ERIC and create their own partisan and conservative system for evaluating whether voters, including Democratic voters, should be purged. Several of the more aggressively partisan and conservatively Republican states like West Virginia and Florida, and soon to be Texas, have abandoned ERIC, presumably so that they aren’t governed by its measured and bipartisan guidance.
And finally, the KDP response says out loud what some may be thinking:
It is clear that Adams is seeking this Court’s imprimatur on his blatant attempt to leave the bipartisan means of determining how to remove ineligible voters from the rolls, and wishes to join the untested methods used by other fiercely partisan and right-wing states. This Court should deny the request and affirm that Kentucky needs to remain under bipartisan review of its elections process.
So – plot or not?
Back to the headline: is SOS Adams really looking to leave ERIC because of increased cost and lower effectiveness? Or is he part of a right-wing plot to further hamper voting, especially for Democrats?
On the one hand, there is no doubt that the conspiracy contagion has damaged the ability of ERIC to carry out its mission. Even after Republicans across the country have come to its defense, including former KY SOS Trey Grayson and Georgia SOS Brad Raffensberger, the right-wing noise machine is doing what it always does: destroying good governance, especially if that governance is bi-partisan.
Adams’s point about cost is, in my opinion, a non-starter. His office has a budget of $6.4 million, and the Board of Elections has a budget of $9 million. An additional $20,000 is a rounding error.
The loss of the data from surrounding states, though, is definitely a problem. Why take the time to work the data-comparison process, which is no doubt time-intensive, when it’s not going to be useful? And, as Adams notes, his office may be able to get more useful data by going right to the source, such as the post office.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that some Republican states have done all they can to make voting as hard as possible, especially in blue parts of their state. Shorter hours, fewer polling places, elimination of absentee voting – all the tricks and tactics we are familiar with. Is it any wonder, then, that the KDP has filed to stop Kentucky from joining the states looking to form their own right-wing database and the processes that flow from it?
In the end, it all comes down to intent. Do you trust Michael Adams, or not? Is he telling the whole story, or not? Is he trying to find a way to continue to honor the consent decree without using ERIC, or does he see an opportunity to join with other right-wing destroyers of democracy and suppress the vote?
The question marks in the preceding paragraphs should give you a clue as to my answer to all those questions: I’m not sure. Because of his actions over the past few years to make voting more accessible in the state, I tend to give Adams the benefit of the doubt. But, I also think that leaving ERIC is giving in to the conspiracy mongers, and does more harm than good.
Perhaps saner heads will prevail, and we can find a bipartisan solution to voter roll maintenance, if ERIC goes away. In the meantime, though, I hope Adams both takes a stand against the crazies and stays with ERIC, and pursues other ways of getting solid voter data, so as to keep our rolls as clean as possible.
Thoughts? Comments? Add them below!