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Examining how the far right tore apart one of the best tools to fight voter fraud

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

NPR has learned the backstory to an unusual move against voter fraud. Republicans have made an issue of clean voter rolls for years. Even after thousands of election officials and dozens of courts affirmed the results of the 2020 election, some officials say they're concerned, and some have even been turning against a tool that is used to protect voting. States led by Republicans and Democrats alike use this tool called ERIC, and Miles Parks, what is that?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: So it stands for the Electronic Registration Information Center. Basically, it's a partnership. It allows states to share data so that way, local election officials know when their voters move, when they die, and occasionally when they vote twice in federal elections, which is against the law.

INSKEEP: OK, so pretty straightforward there. Miles, by the way, is NPR's voting correspondent, and he's investigated one of the states that's abandoned this basic tool. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin suddenly took his state out of the agreement. His decision shocked other secretaries of state, like Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who's a Democrat in New Mexico.

MAGGIE TOULOUSE OLIVER: I've tried to have many conversations with him about it. In all frankness, I'm still not completely clear what the concerns were, and that remains to this day. It's not entirely clear to me.

INSKEEP: And it matters, because Ardoin's decision in Louisiana was the start of a chain reaction. Eight Republican-led states and counting have pulled out of this system called ERIC. Miles Parks and the NPR investigations team have now found out what triggered it all. And Miles, what was it?

PARKS: A big part of it comes back to a far-right website called the Gateway Pundit. This is a website that has pushed a number of conspiracy theories in the past, things - the birther theory about former President Barack Obama, misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. This website turned its attention in January 2022 to ERIC, something at the time no regular American had heard of, and it published a number of articles saying that ERIC was a left-wing plot funded by the liberal billionaire George Soros to register voters to help Democrats steal elections. None of this, of course, is true.

INSKEEP: It's a government program among states, right? It's not some private thing.

PARKS: Exactly. Each state has a member representative on it. And the partnership includes a number of Republican states.

INSKEEP: So what happened when the Gateway Pundit jumped on this supposed story?

PARKS: We analyzed a number of far-right social media sites and found that they began sharing this Gateway Pundit article widely. And Ardoin's decision to pull Louisiana out of ERIC referenced media reports, which seems directly linked to the Gateway Pundit. The other thing our investigation found is that while Ardoin announced this decision quietly in a press release, he did bring his decision to pull Louisiana out of ERIC a small election integrity group in Houma, Louisiana. And we found video of this event on Facebook this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE ARDOIN: This week, I sent a letter to the Election Registration Information Center suspending Louisiana's participation in that program.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

PARKS: Now, you can hear how thrilled these people are about Ardoin's decision. I should note, Ardoin declined to be interviewed. But our investigation found that these sorts of local election integrity groups really effectively put pressure on election officials across the country.

INSKEEP: So a small group of actual voters gets excited by this Gateway Pundit story. And the Louisiana secretary of state does something to please them. These are groups that are organized to talk about what they consider election integrity.

PARKS: Yeah, we've seen them pop up, motivated by former President Trump's lies about voting in 2020, all over the country. They have done trainings on how to be poll watchers. A number of them have done door-to-door canvassing to try to find voter fraud. And then last year, we found a number of callouts where these groups mobilized their members and said, send emails, make phone calls to your state lawmakers to get them out of ERIC. Which brings us to a woman named Cleta Mitchell. Steve, you may remember her. She's an influential Republican election attorney. She worked with former President Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election. And she runs a network of these sorts of local election integrity groups all over the country. She also hosts a voting podcast, and she used both of those things to really push the anti-ERIC narrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLETA MITCHELL: ERIC is a very insidious organization. We want more citizens to say to their legislators, do not continue your membership, withdraw their membership.

INSKEEP: So some states have been pulling out of this organization that was a kind of compact between red states and blue states. Have you been able to talk with any of the election officials who did this?

PARKS: Yes, I talked at length with Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. We talked about ERIC first in February. And when we talked, he was really concerned about the states, Louisiana and Alabama, at that point, who had pulled out.

FRANK LAROSE: You could see where somebody who's out there trying to prove their conservative bona fides in a primary, which is what you do, would say, OK, that thing is bad. Let's get our state out of it. Hopefully, over time the noise about this starts to die down and other states look to get back into it.

PARKS: He even called it one of the best fraud fighting tools that his office has. But then a month later, Ohio pulled out of ERIC as well, followed by five other states.

INSKEEP: Why?

PARKS: He was adamant that it was about some issues with the organization and how it operated and said basically they weren't making changes. But it's important to note that none of these issues came up in the six years that Ohio was an ERIC member before the far right started targeting it. It's also worth noting, Steve, that LaRose, like many other Republican election officials in this story, is widely expected to run for Senate.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for the 2024 elections then?

PARKS: So I talked about that at length with Brianna Lennon. She's a county clerk in Boone County, Missouri. She's a Democrat. And Missouri is one of the states that has pulled out of ERIC. She said, put simply, her voter rolls are just going to be less up to date. There could be potentially longer lines at precincts, mail ballots getting sent to the wrong places. But Lennon also said, as she looks ahead to 2024, she is just as concerned about what this entire ERIC saga signals for the strength of the election denial movement.

BRIANNA LENNON: I'm sure there are going to be ripples that come from this particular move. I'm not exactly sure what the end will be. I don't think this is an isolated thing.

PARKS: Essentially, this whole thing presents a blueprint for how a conspiracy can start on a far-right website and end up influencing policy in more than half a dozen states.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks, thanks so much.

PARKS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you can hear the full investigation in the podcast feeds of Up First and the NPR Politics podcast. And you can also find it at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
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