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ERIC helps identify voter fraud in Pa. and other states. So, why is one lawmaker pushing for the state to leave it?

  • Robby Brod
Pennsylvania State Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, during the confirmation hearing of acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt on Mary 24, 2023


Pennsylvania State Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, during the confirmation hearing of acting Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt on Mary 24, 2023

Here’s a scenario:

Imagine a Pennsylvania snowbird registers to vote in the Commonwealth, migrates to New Jersey for the winter and registers in that state as well.

How would either state detect it and prevent this person from voting twice — which is illegal?

The answer for Pennsylvania is to turn to the Electronic Registration Information Center — known as ERIC. It’s an interstate partnership between 25 states and the District of Columbia. They share information to verify the details of their voter rolls.

ERIC is set up to combat voter fraud by identifying voters who cast ballots in more than one state, and dead people still registered to vote. Without it, election officials aren’t made aware when voters change addresses, register in another state, or pass away.

But, it has drawn attention from the far-right. Eight Republican-led states have withdrawn from ERIC because of concerns that arose from misinformation, according to an NPR investigation.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Cris Dush, of Jefferson County, has called for the Commonwealth to follow suit – even though election experts say such a move would make voter rolls more susceptible to fraud.

Why Dush wants out of ERIC

Dush was appointed to the Senate State Government Committee earlier this year. He raised questions about ERIC during two hearings involving Acting Secretary of State Al Schmidt, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s nominee for the job.

“I think ERIC is a sinking ship and a ghost entity that has access to the sensitive information of our voters,” he said during Schmidt’s first confirmation hearing in May.

For context, Dush rejected the results after the 2020 presidential election and led a GOP investigation of the commonwealth’s results – despite no evidence of widespread fraud. He even traveled to Arizona with two other state lawmakers to observe the widely-criticized attempt to audit Arizona’s vote.

Schmidt, the sole Republican city commissioner in Philadelphia at the time, faced death threats from Trump supporters for strongly defending the 2020 results and using facts to dismiss false claims about election fraud.

He detailed how ERIC member states protect drivers license info and Social Security numbers by scrambling the data the same way before sending it to ERIC using a process called “one-way hashing.”

“So that when ERIC receives the information, those – let’s say last four digits – you would be able to match them from one state to another, but it’s not the last four of the person’s Social Security number, and it’s not the driver’s license number,” Schmidt said. “They’re matching a nine to a nine, even though a nine isn’t a nine. It’s just they’re all changed in the same way.”

Dush remained skeptical.

“In order to do that, there has to be a decryption code in order to make that comparison from one data set to another. So at that third party organization,” Dush said, “they have to have the decryption capability in order to make that alignment.”

Schmidt explained how ERIC never unscrambles the information it receives.

“All the states use the same one-way hashing system, so that they’re hashed the same way as one another before the information is transmitted to ERIC to begin with,” he said. “There is no driver’s license number or Social Security number that comes back to the state.”

Al Schmidt, acting secretary of the commonwealth, during his nomination hearing on May 23, 2023.


Al Schmidt, acting secretary of the commonwealth, during his nomination hearing on May 23, 2023.

Experts warn against leaving ERIC

Clashes like this are becoming increasingly common nationwide, as nearby Ohio and Virginia have left the partnership this year.

Election leaders have long considered ERIC to be a secure and reliable way to expedite the process of verifying voter information. But, the program became a target of GOP election deniers following the 2020 Election.

Since then, officials have used information from ERIC to cancel “about 130,000 ineligible voter records,” according to Schmidt.

Marian Schneider is a senior elections lawyer with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and previously served as the Deputy Secretary for Elections and Commissions with the Department of State.

She was the state’s first ERIC board member in 2016, and noted ERIC works as a “clearinghouse with anonymous data.”

“They would send back the report with the matches, Pennsylvania would get it, and then they would de-anonymize it on the Pennsylvania side,” she said. “What’s so ironic and frustrating about this is the people who are spreading the false narrative are the ones that claim the voter rolls are not accurate in the first instance.”

Critics of ERIC, like Dush, say they’re concerned about the partisanship of ERIC’s board members – and question the efficiency of the program with other states leaving.

But, NPR’s probe found misinformation from far-right websites and “election integrity” groups has spurred such concerns.

Yvonne Hursh is senior counsel with the Election Law Advisory Board, which recommends improvements to the state’s election code.

She said the board recommended a law two years ago to solidify the Commonealth’s participation in ERIC – noting she has yet to see any evidence of it compromising sensitive voter information.

“We haven’t encountered, to my knowledge, any kind of concerns that are being raised in other states,” she said. “If you can’t provide any kind of evidence beyond opinion, then I think you have to take a step back and really think about withdrawing from what, from all reports, is an effective and useful program.”

What’s the likelihood Pennsylvania could leave ERIC?

The decision to leave ERIC is ultimately up to the Department of State and Shapiro – who would likely veto any legislation calling for it.

If the state withdrew from the program, election officials would only be able to verify voter information by contacting the Postal Service and Social Security offices, which takes much more time and effort.

The Department of State is unable to use ERIC’s data about dead voters, so it cross-references data with the Department of Health, Register of Wills, and newspaper obituaries.

Jeff Greenburg is a senior advisor with government watchdog group Committee of 70, and also served as Mercer County’s director of elections from 2007-20.

He said leaving ERIC would make it harder to detect illegal voters.

“Without organizations or efforts like ERIC, it becomes more likely that type of voter fraud could increase,” he said. “It is not going to make our voter rolls more secure or more accurate if we leave ERIC; it is going to make it less.”

Greenburg said the department should meet more often with lawmakers and county election leaders – in private – to discuss ERIC’s security safeguards, and debunk misinformation about the partnership.

Dush did not return a request for comment.

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