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Texas begins withdrawal from multistate partnership to clean voter rolls

 Voters check in with poll workers behind glass and cast ballots in booths spread apart in the gymnasium at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center for the delayed primary runoff election in Houston, on July 14, 2020. On Thursday, the state began the process of leaving a multistate program that cleans voter rolls.
Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune
Voters check in with poll workers behind glass and cast ballots in booths spread apart in the gymnasium at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center for the delayed primary runoff election in Houston, on July 14, 2020. On Thursday, the state began the process of leaving a multistate program that cleans voter rolls.

A new GOP-backed state law requires Texas to create its own version of a cross-check program or find a vendor that doesn’t cost more than $100,000.

This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

The Texas secretary of state submitted its exit notice Thursday to a national coalition that is one of the best tools to combat voter fraud, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Votebeat.

The withdrawal from the program comes after Republican leaders pushed the effort and approved legislation to stop using the Electronic Registration Information Center, also known as ERIC, a program 27 states use to check duplicate voter registrations and clean voter rolls. The campaign to withdraw was underway among members of the Texas Republican Party and Republican lawmakers for more than a year but was rooted in misinformation and election conspiracy theories.

According to the secretary of state’s resignation letter, the state’s exit will be effective in three months, in accordance with the program’s bylaws. By then, a law approved by the Texas Legislature this session, authored by Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes, will have gone into effect. That legislation directs the secretary of state to build its own version of a multistate cross-check program or to find a “private sector provider” with a cost that won’t exceed $100,000. Hughes did not respond to Votebeat’s request for comment.

Alicia Pierce, the secretary of state’s spokesperson, said the state could not stay in ERIC because it must now comply with the requirements in the Hughes legislation. She also pointed to previous exits from the coalition by eight other Republican-led states since 2022: Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, Iowa and Virginia, all of which faced similar political pressure.

“As fewer states are participating, the costs are increasing and the amount of data we’re going to receive will be reduced,” Pierce said.

Nonetheless, Texas law still requires the state to participate in a multistate data-sharing program to clean its voter rolls, which is what led the state to join ERIC in 2020. When the state stops using ERIC in October, it will be in violation of that requirement unless it finds an acceptable substitute, which won’t be easy.

Pierce told Votebeat the secretary of state’s office is still researching options.

The push to leave ERIC in Texas began more than a year ago and was based on misinformation spread by right-wing activists and conservative media that falsely said the program is led by left-wing activists, that its funding comes from Democratic megadonor George Soros and that it shares voters’ private data with outside groups. Among other allegations, they falsely claimed ERIC is seeking to give Democrats an advantage.

Experts told Votebeat there is no viable alternative to ERIC right now. Some private firms are attempting to sell services to compete with it, but those likely won’t be as effective or accurate without the access to data that only state officials can obtain. Efforts to replicate the program will be costly and could take years to develop.

Texas counties update their voter rolls year-round, and additional data provided by ERIC helped them identify voters who have moved in and out of state and voters who have died. Last year, the program helped the state identify at least 100,000 in-state duplicate voters and another 100,000 duplicates of people who moved in or out of state that were sent to counties to investigate.

ERIC executive director Shane Hamlin said in a statement regarding Texas’ withdrawal that the program will “continue our work on behalf of our remaining member states in improving the accuracy of America’s voter rolls and increasing access to voter registration for all eligible citizens.”

State Rep. John Bucy, a Democrat from Austin, said the announcement Thursday was frustrating because ERIC is an effective tool.

“The GOP push to get out of ERIC shows they’re not committed to safe and accurate elections as they claim, but instead are committed to placating extremists in their party that perpetuate the big lie,” Bucy said in a text message.

Bucy successfully added two amendments to Hughes’ bill to withdraw from ERIC in an effort to add some “guardrails” to the law. Those provisions require that a new system used by the secretary of state complies with the National Voter Registration Act, the Help America Vote Act and all state and federal laws relating to the protection of personal information. Private vendors must do a background check for each employee of the system.

Voting rights advocates say the withdrawal is “dangerous and unnecessary.”

Katya Ehresman, voting rights program manager at Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for voting rights and government accountability, said the state’s chief elections officer should instead be “making it easier to exercise our right to vote.”

“Deploying partisan tactics like this only stands to scare people away from the ballot box and doesn’t do anything to strengthen the security of our state’s elections,” she said.

Natalia Contreras is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with the Texas Tribune. Contact Natalia at ncontreras@votebeat.org.

Disclosure: Common Cause and Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Natalia Contreras, Votebeat and The Texas Tribune