Alabama is creating its own voter database. Experts aren’t sure that’s wise.

Proposal would replace multistate system that NC is forbidden from joining under new state budget

By: - October 11, 2023 1:15 pm
a voter looks for her name on a list

Michelle Orengo-McFarlane looks for her name on a voter registration list in San Francisco, California in a file photo. Alabama pulled out of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) earlier this year to create its own system, but experts say it may not have the safeguards of ERIC. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

When Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen unveiled the Alabama Voter Integrity Database (AVID) on Sept. 18, he fulfilled a campaign promise to voters to replace the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) he withdrew from nine months earlier.

But several critics question the wisdom of pulling out of ERIC, a service that was shown to be an effective tool for maintaining accurate voter registration rolls and preventing fraud.

“ERIC did that, and did a good job,” said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who conducts research on election administration, voting behavior and public opinion. “It worries me that Alabama and my own state, Missouri, have dropped out of ERIC.”

The move has left critics wondering whether the new platform can ever match ERIC in its efficacy, security and cost. Possible failures with any new voter registration database can have negative potential consequences that can limit the electorate’s ability to vote and hamper democracy overall.

Allen said in a statement on Tuesday that he was proud establish AVID as an Alabama-based alternative to ERIC.

“AVID provides for the secure protection of Alabamians data, because it is maintained on an Alabama owned server located in our state, and the data is encrypted and hashed,” the statement said. “Unlike its predecessor, ERIC, we can touch the data, we know it’s physical whereabouts and exactly who is seeing and using it. For the first time in our state’s, history, we can compare our data with each of our neighboring states, some thing that was not possible, while we were members of ERIC. I am completely confident that we, because of AVID, will have the cleanest voter rolls we have ever had.”

But other states that tried establishing their own databases racked up several failures. One system rolled out by Kansas resulted in lawsuits and was eventually abandoned.

A nonprofit registration check

ERIC was established in 2012 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization to ensure that states maintained accurate voter rolls.

“A number of election officials recognized there was no database that tracked voters when they would move and go from one place to another,” said David Levine, senior elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former elections official in Idaho. “One of the things that is very hard is that many parts of the country are transient. People often move for any number of reasons, and if states are not communicating with other states, their ability to keep track of when voters leave the state, and when they are no longer eligible (to vote), is hard to do.”

States members of the compact oversee its operations, providing information about every two months to check against voter rolls.

According to the ERIC website, the shared data includes voter registration and motor vehicle data. ERIC also obtains death data from the Social Security Administration and the National Change of Address Program from the U.S. Postal Service.

The system then identifies transient voters by triangulating the information from the sources and providing election officials from member states with various reports. The ERIC website outlines the different products that it provides.

Among them is a report to identify people who have moved from one state to another. A second report recognizes those who have moved, but within the borders of the same state. ERIC also has reports that find those with duplicate voter registrations as well as those who have died.

ERIC will also identify people who are eligible to vote but not registered and send them voter registration information.

Despite the advantage the system offers for maintaining accurate voter rolls, Alabama and eight other states — Texas, Florida, West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa and Virginia — have left ERIC. North Carolina’s new state budget (see page 523) prohibits it from joining ERIC.

The departures came as former President Donald Trump’s repeated lies about the 2020 presidential election politicized voting and election administration systems. Florida joined ERIC in 2019, highlighting its ability to combat voter fraud, but withdrew from the compact just two years later.

Mark Ard, external affairs director for Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd, wrote in an email that the state decided not to be part of ERIC after it refused to implement changes that Florida wanted. This included amending the bylaws to ensure that membership consists of only members who answer to the voters and taxpayers they represent, strengthening list maintenance reporting requirements to align with the National Voter Registration Act more closely, and allowing to share non-citizen information.

“As Secretary of State, I have an obligation to protect the personal information of Florida’s citizens, which the ERIC agreement requires us to share,” Byrd said in a statement. “Florida has tried to back reforms to increase protections, but these protections were refused. Therefore, we have lost confidence in ERIC.”

Another state, Missouri, also opted to be removed from ERIC.

“We pulled out of ERIC because it wasn’t doing what it promised us it would do and what we hoped it would do,” Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said in an interview.

Ashcroft wrote in a March announcing the state’s withdrawal from ERIC that the system refuses to require member states to address multistate voter fraud; that he opposed ERIC requiring states to notify eligible but unregistered voters of their status, and that it “unnecessarily restricts how Missouri utilizes data reports.”

“ERIC’s benefits to Missouri are limited as only three of the eight states that border Missouri are members,” Ashcroft’s letter states.

Others, such as Alabama, have said that the ERIC system is sharing voter data through an unaccountable third-party vendor, which is not true. Allen, who withdrew Alabama from ERIC on his second day in office, once said that ERIC was a “liberal, Soros-funded group,” an allusion to a falsehood that started among conservative media sites that billionaire George Soros, who supports progressive causes, had funded ERIC.

Post-ERIC options

a sign says "vote here"
People enter a voting precinct to vote in the Michigan primary election at Trombly School Aug. 7, 2018 in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

States that have abandoned ERIC have several options. The first is to accept inaccurate voter rolls, which no one wants.  The second is to create their own.

According to ERIC’s website, member states are charged a one-time fee of $25,000 that ERIC uses for technology upgrades and unanticipated expenses. There are then annual dues ranging from $37,000 to $174,000, which is based on the citizen voting age population for each state.

ERIC is not free, but those wishing for their own system must weigh those dollars against the potential expenses they could incur from going at it alone.

Missouri opted to maintain its own voter rolls, not even looking to replace ERIC. Ashcroft said he is looking at developing AI tools that use fuzzy logic, a method of reasoning by computers that resembles human logic, to help with the matching.

He hopes that, along with other measures, will help keep the state’s voter rolls updated.

“But then also, looking at changes like government-issued photo ID,” he said. “We are also looking at passing a bill next year that would make voter registrations expire in Missouri every six years, just like a Missouri driver’s license does.”

In founding AVID, Allen hopes he can create a tool that is just as robust as ERIC.

Each year, AVID will obtain data from the National Change of Address Program with the United States Postal Service. Allen added that AVID will also pull data about people who have passed away from the Social Security Administration.

But few election administration experts believe that in-house voter registration maintenance databases will match ERIC for accuracy, security and cost.

“When ERIC came to be over a decade ago, that was a culmination of efforts over several years,” Levine said. “If it had been easy, it would have been quicker, and we would have come up with it sooner. So, saying you are going to turn something around in a year, I think, in a number of corners, will raise some eyebrows.”

Identifying people accurately is difficult and cumbersome, according to critics. Allen said at the Sept. 18 press conference announcing AVID that the system would obtain information from the national change of address database and the Social Security death data. The Secretary of State’s Office will also work with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to help identify voters who have obtained a driver’s license or non-driver identification in another state.

But comparing names across different databases will yield duplicate results. There are multiple people named John Smith, Maria Rodriguez and James Lee who live across multiple states.

“Everyone who studies this knows it is a very difficult thing,” said David Becker, the founder and executive director of The Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit organization that works with officials to ensure the integrity of elections. “That is why you need multiple data points. Neither Social Security, nor national change of address, compared one-to-one, in a single state, against a voter file, can yield the kind of sophisticated results that ERIC yields.”

ERIC addresses this issue by using multiple data points to confirm and verify people’s voter registration. Not only does it use Social Security and the National Change of Address Program, but it also contains motor vehicle data across several states.

“You have got voter data, DMV data, social security death data, national change of address from the postal service, and it is all being matched together,” Becker said.

In addition, ERIC has software to match and crosscheck the information. ERIC was developed by Jeff Jonas, founder and CEO of Senzing, a computer software company, who National Geographic recognized as the Big Wizard of Data. Becker estimates that the upfront cost to develop ERIC was about $2 million a decade ago.

“ERIC runs on software that was created by one of the greatest data scientists in the United States, a former IBM fellow,” Becker said. “It is software that is not cheap, but when you spread the cost out amongst 25 or 30 states, it is manageable.”

Allen said at the press conference announcing AVID that the state will pay $5,000 to obtain information from the Social Security Administration about those who passed away, and $7,000 to receive information from the national change of address system.

But an entire infrastructure must be built around that information.

“That is just getting the data,” Becker said. “The data doesn’t match itself, and it is coming in different formats. You are going to need hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of staff time and resources to review this data, especially if you want to do it right.”

Ashcroft said Missouri will spend money for personnel and information technology as it develops its own system, but said they are sunk costs because they will reallocate personnel time to work on the matter. He did not know just how much money that would be.

According to ERIC’s 2022 audited financial statements and 990 forms, which are public, personnel and information technology are the two highest expenses at $380,000 and $420,000 respectively.

ERIC pays two employees: Shane Hamlin, the executive director of the organization, received almost $123,000 in 2022. Ericka Haas, a systems engineer and technical liaison, was paid about $116,000.

Levine said ERIC’s scale helps it cut costs.

“It is a math problem,” Levine said. “You could be the world’s best, but it is hard to envision a scenario in which you can be as secure, as accurate and as cost-effective. Where you are not pooling your resources.”

Multiple understandings

a voter checks in at a polling place
A voter shows identification to an election judge during primary voting on May 3, 2022 in Lordstown, Ohio. Former President Donald Trump recently endorsed J.D. Vance in the Ohio Republican Senate primary. Other candidates in the Republican Senate primary field include Josh Mandel, Mike Gibbons, Jane Timken, Matt Dolan and Mark Pukita. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Tracking people who have either left or have come from another state is an important aspect of maintaining accurate voter rolls. That is the reason the ERIC member states must submit motor vehicle information and voter registration data into ERIC’s system.

States opting not to be part of ERIC must also track the arrival and departures of residents on their own.   To do that, states must secure MOUs with every state in the country, and that can be cumbersome.

Allen has managed to secure agreements with states on Alabama’s borders. The Alabama Reflector obtained copies of the agreement made with Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, which are nearly identical.  The Reflector shared the Tennessee agreement with election administration experts.

The agreement indicates that the two parties will share information electronic files containing each’s statewide voter registration data, that the information will be compared between the two parties, that the results will be shared between the two parties in the agreement, and that data will be transferred using “industry standard encryption technology and with password protection.”

Other stipulations are that each party will “maintain procedures and controls acceptable to the other” to ensure that information is not mishandled or misused, and that it is not released, disclosed or misused by employees.

The agreement mandates that each party will retain private information. This includes bank account numbers or statements, social security and driver’s license numbers. Should one party receive a records request from the public, it will notify the other party that is part of the agreement promptly.

“All I read in that agreement is data sharing,” said Amber McReynolds, a former election director in Denver. “There is nothing about the mechanics of how they are going to use the data, what are they going to do with it, are they going to send a notice out to voters. None of that is in the memorandum of understanding.”

McReynolds wondered about the nature of the data that is shared between the states that are part of the agreement.

“Is that just purely their voter file or did they do something to it prior, so did they match it against the National Change of Address database?” McReynolds said. “Did they check it against their own motor vehicle records? What is the source of data points where they have determined that they think that someone moved from Alabama to Tennessee?”

Becker said that language in the agreement concerning security is vague. The agreement says that the information will be encrypted, but does not identify protections ensuring secure storage of the data, or remedies in case of breaches.

“It may be that there are great answers to all these questions, but you have to answer these questions before you send your citizens’ data to another state you have no control over,” Becker said.

ERIC lays out all the security measures it will take in its documents such as its membership agreements and in its bylaws. There are security audits that are done, and there are strong prohibitions on disclosure of information.

“There is a lot of private information in the voter files in Alabama or any other state,” Becker said. “There are lots of drivers’ license numbers, there are lots of social security numbers, there are dates of birth, all very sensitive. I would not have expected this to be in here, but they are talking about bank account numbers — I don’t know what’s in Alabama’s voter database but that is a red flag right there.”

If these issues aren’t addressed, then there could be a data breach.

“Secondly, there is absolutely nothing here that indicates it could actually deliver the product it is supposed to,” Becker said.

If the two parties are only sharing voter data, there is nothing that either side could glean about voters getting counted twice. First names and last names could be duplicated, even if birthdates are included.

“This is speculation, I don’t know if this is true, it almost appears that it is an agreement taken from other entirely different purpose and just repackaged to say they are doing something that is similar to ERIC even though there is no way that this agreement can yield results like ERIC,” Becker said. “Although it does yield some pretty significant data security concerns.”

Other states have tried to replicate ERIC’s capabilities and failed, which can carry hefty consequences.

“If you do it wrong, the past is prologue, litigation could be part of the equation,” Levine said.

Kansas created Crosscheck in 2005, before the creation of ERIC. It aimed to find voters who were registered to vote in multiple states.

Using information obtained from Crosscheck as its partner, election administrators in Idaho removed eligible voters from its rolls, and the system yielded so many false positives that election officials spent a great deal of time reviewing the results to confirm it was correct.

There were multiple calls by the public to pull the state out of Crosscheck. And legislation was introduced to make that a reality.

Eventually that system was laid to rest and never used again because of an ACLU lawsuit.

“I am hopeful that the states that are trying to do something in short order, ahead of 2024, are perhaps heeding the lessons of what happened there in Kansas so that they don’t have some of the same mistakes,” Levine said.

Tennessee Lookout reporter Sam Stockard contributed to this report.

This report was first published by the Alabama Reflector.

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.