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The far right wants to protect the Big Lie, not election integrity, not democracy
The Election Integrity Network, led by an election denier, battles against election integrity
A useful concept from economics is the distinction between cheap talk and revealed preferences. Cheap talk are the values you say you care about, revealed preferences are the values that you devote your time and efforts to further.
The cheap talk from Republicans for the last couple of decades has been about minimizing election fraud, and improving election integrity. Even before the 2020 election and the Big Lie, this cheap talk has justified voter ID, and imposing new and onerous requirements to vote. In many cases the cheapness of the talk was reflected in the lack of an observable problem to solve (there is very little voter fraud), and the lack of a causal relationship between the proposed tools and imagined solutions. And yet, courts tend to defer to policymaker claims about how they are seeking to protect election integrity, even if those claims are not empirically grounded.
According to Democrats, the underlying preference of Republicans was voter suppression, on the questionable assumption that lower voting rates help Republican candidates.
One way to test these competing narratives would be for Republican officials to walk away from election tools that they acknowledge really do minimize fraud and improve election integrity. Arguably, Republican opposition to automatic voter registration or same day registration serve as examples, since these are processes that allow state officials to directly verify registration information.
But we have at hand an even cleaner example, which is the growing Republican abandonment of ERIC. ERIC is a cross-state data sharing tool that allows officials to identify one rare but feasible form of voter fraud: a voter who votes in two states. By sharing information, state officials can identify and investigate any such cases. Since 2022, eight Republican states have left ERIC.
ERIC is a tool that directly responded to Republican concerns about voter fraud. So why are Republican officials abandoning a tool they once championed? The example shows a revealed preference not for election integrity, but for voter suppression and for protecting conspiracy theories over dealing with reality. ERIC, by failing to reveal the massive voter fraud proclaimed by Big Lie advocates, undermines the conspiracy theory, and so Big Lie advocates are working to eliminate the source of this inconvenient truth.
A series of terrific investigative pieces by Miles Park at NPR reveals how ERIC fell afoul of the Big Lie movement, and in doing so, reveals much about how the Republicans who oversee our elections are co-opted into, or actively support, anti-democratic actions.
The conspiracy media comes for ERIC
ERIC had been relatively uncontroversial since its creation. The idea behind it started in 2008, when election officials identified the potential for people to have multiple registrations in different states — in itself not surprising in a country that is at once highly mobile but operates a decentralized voting system — creating the potential for voting in different states. ERIC offered a tool that could track that problem, through a mixture of data sourcing and analytical tools that minimized false positives. By identifying moves and deaths, it allowed states to keep the voting rolls accurate. In 2013 it had seven members, which would increase to 32 states at its height.
Then in January of 2022, the Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin dropped out of ERIC. He made his announcement to a group of far right election activists, to sustained applause. But for other election officials it was a puzzle. One state election official who worked for GOP secretaries of state said:
Everybody looked at this and said, 'This is insane, what are you talking about?' As soon as [Ardoin] did that — that created this pressure on the other Republican states that wasn't there before
Why did he do so? And how did ERIC suddenly become so controversial?
The proximate cause was an article by “Gateway Pundit” an influential right wing source of Big Lie conspiracy theories. The article claimed, falsely, that the project was a left-wing conspiracy funded by George Soros. Ardoin exited ERIC just a week later, citing the allegations, while having made no effort to investigate them, or acknowledging that the source was dubious (for example, Gateway Pundit also promoted the idea that school shooting victims were actually paid actors).
The Gateway Pundit article put a target on ERIC’s back. Ardoin’s announcement created a viable policy action that Republican election officials in response.
Ardoin was running for re-election, and catering to a constituency where many believed the Big Lie. And so he want along with it. This is one of the pernicious way the Big Lie works. Elected election officials make policy based on conspiracy theories they know are untrue.
NPR could not get many of these Republican election officials to respond to interview requests, but one who did, Frank LaRose, the Ohio Secretary of State, was incredibly revealing. LaRose praised the value of ERIC as “one of the best fraud fighting tools that we have” and saying:
You can see where somebody who's out there trying to prove their conservative bona fides in a primary, which is what you do, would read this [Gateway Pundit] article and say, 'OK, that thing is bad, let's get our state out of it. But hopefully over time, the noise about this starts to die down and other states look to get back into it.
A month after that interview, LaRose withdrew the state of Ohio from ERIC.
He was on the record saying that ERIC worked, that the withdrawals were driven by politics and dubious claims. But then he followed Ardoin down the Big Lie path.
Other politically ambitious candidates for Secretary of State also followed suit. In Alabama, Wes Allen made it a promise in his successful campaign, saying “Soros can take his minions and his database and troll someone else because Alabamians are going to be off limits — permanently.”
Do we want an election system that works or not?
The story of ERIC is also about the use of data and technology, which can be used to both a) expand outreach, and b) maintain the integrity of election rolls. Discarding these tools effectively means agreeing to less accessible and more cumbersome election systems.
In Alabama for example, Allen’s predecessor pointed out how ERIC had identified 19,000 deceased people on the rolls, and 222,000 who had moved out of state. Without these tools, states turn to more cumbersome means of maintaining voter rolls, such as sending out postcards to verify current residence, or striking voters from the rolls if they have not voted for a certain number of elections. One problem with those approaches is that they often remove registration from eligible voters who simply fail to return postcards, or did not vote for a while. For example, Ohio’s voter purging processes were set to remove about 40,000 voters who remained eligible. Even after this was pointed out, the revised purge removed 10,000 voters who went on to vote in the 2020 election.
Now, if your goal is to push states towards unwieldy, burdensome processes that leads to tens of thousands of voters being purged, ERIC may not be for you. The other problem with ERIC is that it also requires member states to notify eligible voters of their eligible, a minor piece of outreach that the state should be engaging with anyway. But in our upside-down politics, the idea of election officials encouraging people to vote, or making voting easier, has become a matter of scandal on the far-right. (Another example: donations from Mark Zuckerberg to state and local government to maintain voting access during the pandemic has morphed into “Zuckerberg bought the election for Biden”).
Ultimately, it was the outreach aspect of ERIC that so enraged the far right. “ERIC is essentially a left wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up” according to the original Gateway Pundit article. That, and the fake Soros connection, rather than any actual wrongdoing was enough to push Republican officials to abandon it. Anti-ERIC activists have portrayed light touch voter outreach as the nefarious conspiracy that ERIC is propagating. One said that ERIC was “bloating the rolls” by sending registration information to eligible people.
The impact of ERIC is that instead of cleaning up our voter rolls ... they add more people to it…People who aren't even interested or disengaged don't really want to register. But they just, you know, you ask them enough times, they're going to say yes.
What does it say about a political movement that it regards telling voters about their eligibility to participate in a democracy to be nefarious, something that must be stopped at all costs, even if it means destroying the best tool you have to protect against voter fraud?
The anti-ERIC activists are Big Lie vote suppressors
So who, exactly, are the people who decided to take down ERIC, to pressure Republican secretaries of states to abandon a tool they once praised.
Enter Cleta Mitchell.
Mitchell, you may recall, was the lawyer who was part of President Trump’s efforts to persuade Georgia state officials to “find another 11,780 votes” that would allow Trump to claim victory. (Trump also said during the call “all we have to do, Cleta, is find 11,000-plus votes”). This was an invitation to commit actual fraud, on a massive scale, with the intent of overturning an election. Mitchell did not just sit in on this call. She pressed Georgia official to share confidential voter data. This is notable partly because one of the criticisms of ERIC is that it cannot be trusted with voter data, despite an impeccable record of data protection. Mitchell also complained during the call about “like 4,500” potential of out-of-state voters voting in the election — exactly the problem that ERIC solves — but was rebuffed by state officials telling her “that's just not accurate.”
Mitchell has made ERIC a recurring character in her Big Lie themed podcast, labeling it an “insidious organization” as part of her effort to unit election conspiracy groups. NPR reporting found “Mitchell and these sorts of groups to be central in the effort to discredit and dismantle ERIC.” State-level Big Lie groups contact state legislators or the Secretary of State’s office to raise concerns about ERIC. And they have been successful. NPR shared screenshots of how public officials in Missouri responded.
In Texas, one of these groups even helped to write legislation to remove the state from ERIC.
So lets look more closely at Mitchell’s track record. She routinely claims that Democrats are engaged in mass fraud. But the line between fraud and voter outreach is blurred in Mitchell’s mind. Election integrity seems to be less about minimizing illegal voting and more about minimizing voting more generally, or at least minimizing the influence of voters not aligned with Republicans.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, she launched legal challenges to block vote-by-mail during the pandemic. In the immediate aftermath, she recruited John Eastman to the White House team. Eastman’s whose bogus legal theories provided the basis for Trump’s efforts to steal the election on January 6th.
After the 2020 election, Mitchell resigned from her law firm, and has now devoted herself full time to Big Lie activism. She leads the Election Integrity Network, funded by Trump-aligned Conservative Partnership Institute. Her efforts include funding the “audit” of the Arizona 2020 election results, and training partisan poll watchers who are often themselves Big Lie believers. Part of her standard training is, according to the New York Times, verifying voter registration roles, by “aggressively crowdsourcing the accuracy of the voter rolls by collecting affidavits from residents and mailing letters to try to identify potential “bad addresses.””
In other words, Mitchell is training far right activists to do what ERIC has done quite well, but in a way that is more onerous and will predictably lead to voter and election officials harassment and error. When her poll monitoring tactics were given a test run in Virginia’s gubernatorial elections, Mitchell’s volunteers claimed mass fraud, and snarled the work of election officials, one of whom said: “Everything they saw that they didn’t understand was fraud in their minds and that’s how they would frame the questions. It was always accusatory.”
Mitchell is working with the Republican National Committee in her poll watcher effort. The RNC has only been allowed to participate in poll watching campaigns since 2018, after a three decade ban due to its record of voter harassment at polls. Maybe it will be better this time out!
Beyond poll watching, Mitchell also presented to the RNC about ways to suppress student votes, and limit vote-by-mail and same-day-registration. She also has pushed against pre-registration of students so they become automatically eligible to vote on their 18th birthday. There is, again, no evidence that such tools are associated with election fraud in the way, say, that there is evidence that Cleta Mitchell is associated with voter fraud. Her objections to such modes of voting seem to be driven by the idea that it should not be too easy for certain groups to vote. About campus polling places, she said:
What are these college campus locations? What is this young people effort that they do? They basically put the polling place next to the student dorm so they just have to roll out of bed, vote, and go back to bed.
Imagine that. Young people voting! And then going back to bed! The horror!
Mitchell’s goals are overtly partisan. In her comments to the RNC, she argued that election changes are needed “for any candidate other than a leftist to have a chance to WIN in 2024.” She has focused her student voter suppression efforts on five states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia and Wisconsin — which happen to have both large student populations and are also swing states.
A party beholden to conspiracy theorists
Mitchell’s work illustrates how beholden the Republican Party is to conspiracy theories. Mitchell used her position at the Trump-aligned Conservative Partnership Institute to brief red state lawmakers about the "threat to election integrity” posed by ERIC. NPR found that “Secretaries of from the first five states to withdraw from ERIC attended the four-hour event.” At the same time, the anti-ERIC activists that Mitchell platformed were reaching out to grassroots groups with talking points to pressure lawmakers. In the contemporary conservative world, Mitchell is powerful precisely because she can activate bottom-up pressures while enjoying direct access to top officials.
Mitchell even hosted one of the Secretaries of State who withdrew from ERIC on her podcast. This passage from from NPR captures in a nutshell how staff who knew the attacks on ERIC were a lie were overruled by a politician seeking to shore up his bona fides with the Big Lie wing of the party.
During an appearance on Mitchell's podcast, Ashcroft alluded to not wanting to pull out of ERIC when Mitchell first approached him about it.
"We cussed and discussed about it," Ashcroft said.
The emails NPR acquired in Missouri show Ashcroft's staff calling the initial Gateway Pundit article "horrible and misleading," and saying that they were "glad to be part of ERIC."
But ultimately, Mitchell got her way.
"You have a lot of credibility with people, because of that leadership," she said.
"I hope so," the secretary responded. "There are a lot of people that think I should have left a lot earlier — including you, I think."
"I'm just glad you left!" Mitchell laughed.
This is what a failure to govern looks like
Good governance requires some basic values. One is an attachment to rationality, using evidence to make decisions. In contemporary American politics, this often means resisting widely-debunked but popular conspiracy theories. A number of Republican Secretaries of State failed this most basic of tests. The made a choice to go along with a conspiracy theory that at least some of them know is untrue, and in doing so to abandoned a tool that actually addressed an issue their party said it cared about. Moreover, by exiting, they made a tool that works best when more states share data less effective for all.
Mitchell’s vision of the state is one where election officials and experts are disempowered to be replaced by citizen activists. But which election officials and whose expertise are questioned is based on an entirely partisan process. Presumably the Georgia election officials that she and Trump pressured would have become more trustworthy if they had indeed agree to share confidential data with her, or find the right number of votes, or share confidential voter data. The net effect of removing ERIC will be to fan conspiracy theories and not resolve them, as amateurs decry everything they misunderstand to be evidence of foul play. And so Mitchell feeds a vicious circle of distrust around our governing institutes.
Mitchell herself personifies the hypocrisy of the Republican Party, and the Secretaries of State that have bowed down before her. You can engage in an all-out assault on American elections, as Mitchell did, attempt to engage in fraud, as Mitchell did, and push voter suppression, as Mitchell did, and still play a leading role in the Republican Party lecturing others on the right way to run American democracy.
In a sane, functioning democracy, Cleta Mitchell would be in jail or at least shunned for her efforts to subvert an election. In the American far right, she remains a well-funded and influential figure.
The term Orwellian is overused, but it surely applies to a situation where the leader of the Election Integrity Network works against a proven tool to protect election integrity.
The cheap talk about “fraud” and “election integrity” has no plain language meaning. It is, however, rich with meaning when it comes to democratic backsliding and voter suppression. “Fraud” simply means that the wrong people are voting, and by wrong people we mean eligible voters who are voting for the wrong party. “Election integrity” means stopping those people from voting, even if it results in more illegal voting.
The revealed preference is to protect the Big Lie. To protect it at all costs, to cocoon it from reality. To destroy contradictory sources of evidence, like ERIC. To wrap it in a series of smaller lies, each one a cut to our body politic, until you’ve convinced the people around you, and maybe even yourself, that it is the truth.
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