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Read more VPM News coverage of the historic 2023 elections in Virginia.

Virginia in talks with Ohio, Florida, Texas in new voter fraud initiative

Commissioner Susan J. Beals sitting
Crixell Matthews
/
VPM News File
Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals speaks at a 2022 meeting of the Board of Elections.

Emails obtained using public records request show the states have the long-term goal of developing a centralized data sharing partnership to prevent voter fraud.

Elections officials in Virginia have been communicating with a bipartisan group of around two dozen other states since March to develop new voter data sharing agreements. Their discussions began as a steady stream of Republican-led states have quit a multistate partnership that until early 2022 was considered a widely trusted, bipartisan effort.

The emails also hint that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration was directly involved in Virginia's abrupt exit from that partnership, the Electronic Registration Information Center, commonly known as ERIC.

Many of the complaints cited by Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals in a May 11 letter announcing the state’s departure are also contradicted by talking points staff prepared for Beals several weeks before Virginia formally exited ERIC Aug. 10.

Del. Mark Sickles, the ranking Democratic lawmaker in the House of Delegates’ elections committee, said he plans on pressing for answers when the General Assembly meets again in January. He said the rationale provided in Beals’ letter was incomplete.

“Why didn't the General Assembly know there was dissatisfaction with ERIC?,” Sickles said in an email.

A new partnership

Ohio Director of Elections Amanda Grandjean wrote to counterparts on March 24 — a week after the state quit ERIC — to see if they’d be interested in discussing “securely sharing voter history and other relevant data for the purposes of identifying and investigating potential cross‐state voter fraud.”

After the meeting, Grandjean wrote back noting that the group had settled on two goals: a short-term effort focused on state-to-state data sharing to prevent voter fraud, and a longer-term project “to securely share data and perform [voter] matches in a centralized manner, including those of potential cross‐state voter fraud and other relevant matches for states’ own list maintenance purposes.”

Grandjean offered to get the ball rolling on the first effort, sending a draft state-to-state agreement. It specifies the goal of the memorandum of understanding as “investigating and preventing voter fraud.”

Grandjean later said the group was conducting a survey to improve the MOU in an effort spearheaded by election officials in West Virginia.

Meeting invitations obtained by VPM News show election officials from a range of states have attended some of the group’s meetings, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, as well as Washington, D.C.

It’s not clear where the group’s discussions stand. Virginia Department of Elections spokesperson Andrea Gaines said in an email the department is “pursuing data sharing agreements with other states, supplementing internal list maintenance processes with more data, and successfully updating more voters’ information than ever before.”

Mary Cianciolo, a spokesperson for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, didn’t respond directly to a series of emailed questions.

“Ohio is committed to working with any state and entering into an agreement with any state to securely share data for the purposes of identifying cross-state voter fraud and maintaining accurate voter registration rolls,” she said in an email.

LaRose’s office has yet to fulfill a June 22 public records request made by VPM News; under Ohio code, public records don’t have a definite deadline but must be “prepared promptly” and made available “within a reasonable period of time.”

Internal contradictions

Virginia was a founding member of ERIC under former GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell. The elections department repeatedly hailed ERIC as a valuable tool.

“The data quality from the ERIC program is significantly better than other interstate exchange programs and any program that ELECT could operate in-house with existing resources," the department noted in its 2022 list maintenance report.

That was all before a series of articles from a far-right website targeted ERIC and connected the system to a supposed left-wing plot to steal elections. Several Republican-led states announced they were leaving ERIC following the articles.

Beals’ defense of ERIC was notably weaker in an April 11 State Board of Elections meeting, when a member of the public accused ERIC of “Democrat-driven process of registration harvesting.”

“We are taking the concerns that have been voiced very seriously, and are examining our relationship with ERIC, while also pushing for reforms inside the organization,” Beals said.

Talking points prepared for Beals and emailed April 27, echoed that language while also enumerating ERIC’s virtues, including:

  • “It would take ELECT thousands of dollars to build a comparable product”;
  • “ELECT does not provide or receive any information that is not pertinent and essential to an individual’s voter record such as income or health information”;
  • “Since 2013, ELECT’s participation in ERIC has helped identify over 1.5 million voter records that required updating.”

But by the May 11 letter, Beals said the state had seen enough. The collaboration had become too expensive, with fees up $17,000 from the last fiscal year to the current one, about a 45% increase. The exit of other states made its data less valuable, Beals said. She also cited “controversy surrounding the historical sharing of data with outside organizations leveraged for political purposes."
Beals didn’t provide any evidence of the accusation. ERIC’s website notes that the group doesn’t allow partisan groups to access its data. Some states did voluntarily participate in third-party research projects in 2018 and 2020 using ERIC data aimed at gauging the effectiveness of mailings targeting unregistered voters.

Beals’ decision to quit the collaborative was roundly condemned by election administrators and Democrats, some of whom had previously defended her work.

It’s not clear why Beals’ took a sudden harder line on the topic. But public records show Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office was involved in the decision.

When VPM News requested all internal documents or memos that assess the costs or benefits of the state leaving ERIC, the department denied the request, citing an exemption to the release of the governor’s working papers.

The files include “a decision memorandum and related correspondence specifically with the Office of the Governor regarding Virginia’s membership in ERIC,” according to the department’s FOIA officer.

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, did not directly address questions about Youngkin’s role in the maneuver.

“Virginia is entering agreements with other states and has identified additional data sources to strengthen the integrity of its voter list,” Porter said.

Gaines declined to elaborate on Youngkin’s role in the withdrawal.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.