From VPM News

Virginia state officials are in talks with other, unnamed states to replace the bipartisan voting data collaborative that Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s top elections official quit last week.

In an email Monday, Virginia Department of Election spokesperson Andrea Gaines said, “Virginia has been participating in talks with other states for several months about creating new state to state data-sharing relationships for the purpose of identifying potential double voters.”

Gaines declined to answer questions about what other states are involved in discussions, how the new system might operate and why it would be more reputable than the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC).

Last week, Virginia Commissioner of Elections Susan Beals quietly removed Virginia from ERIC, making it the eighth GOP-led state to withdraw from a group that has become the target of right-wing conspiracy theories over the last year.

The move bucks what Beals’ election staff said as recently as last fall.

“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 annual list maintenance report.

Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are joining other GOP states in considering reversing a decision made last year to join ERIC.

A founding member

Virginia was a founding member state of ERIC in 2012 under former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Elections expert David Becker, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney under Democratic and Republican presidents, helped set it up before he — and ERIC — became the focus of right-wing conspiracy theories.

In an interview, Becker said Virginia’s exit amounts to a capitulation to those voices.

“Right now, Virginia has the most accurate voter list it's ever had in its history,” said Becker, who now serves as director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Election Innovation. “That is going to decline over time.”

ERIC members share data from DMV offices, the U.S. Postal Service and voter registration information to check for voters who’ve died or crossed state lines. Becker argued re-creating that level of granularity without ERIC would be impossible.

Worse, Becker said, was the message that Virginia’s exit sent to people purveying misinformation.

“The entire elections process gets weaker as election officials, in still relatively small numbers, find themselves capitulating to the bullying that is going on out there,” Becker said.

Virginia’s exit was celebrated by state Sen. Amanda Chase (R–Chesterfield), who has cast herself as the state’s leading election denier. In a press releaes, she called the move “a huge victory for Virginia” and repeated false claims that ERIC is connected to liberal political donor George Soros.

Some Republican election officials have defended ERIC, including the secretaries of state in Georgia and Kentucky. Iowa’s Republican secretary of state called it a “godsend” as recently as February. (Iowa’s set to exit the collective by mid-June.)

Beals’ announcement came as a surprise to Fairfax City registrar Brenda Cabrera, who learned about Virginia’s withdrawal from the press. Cabrera, who heads the Voter Registrars Association of Virginia, said in an interview that her goal is always accurate data.

“It's unfortunate to lose a tool to accomplish that,” Cabrera told VPM News.

Cabrera said she hadn’t heard anything from the Virginia Department of Elections on how it would replace ERIC. She said registrars didn’t directly interact with ERIC data; instead, it was mixed in with other data updates it received daily from the state, like updates from the Virginia Office of Vital Records.

An internal system

State law requires Virginia to trade voter information with neighboring states. Gaines said the department would obtain its own subscription to the Limited Master Death file — a list of the deaths reported to the U.S. Social Security Administration. She said the state would also use DMV data to suss out voters who’ve moved.

“This data is currently available and sent to ELECT from DMV on a monthly basis from information received via interstate compact through the DMV,” Gaines said. “ELECT receives data on individuals who have surrendered their Virginia driver’s license when they apply for a driver’s license in a new state.”

Del. Marcus Simon (D–Fairfax) said he wasn’t aware of the compact but doubted it could replicate ERIC's ability to handle complex scenarios. He noted, for example, the case of a service member who had a license from another state but declared Virginia as a domicile.

At a press conference Monday morning, Simon and other Democratic lawmakers accused Beals of caving to election deniers. Some took issue with Beals’ elections oversight during her roughly yearlong tenure. In that period, the department of elections sent out more than 200,000 mailings to wrong addresses and mistakenly released voters’ Social Security numbers and personal information to a Fairfax County GOP committee.

Beals herself attended an elections conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation in February, days before attending a board meeting of ERIC. (Beals did not respond to phone calls and an email seeking an interview.)

“The administration says they will replace the ERIC system,” said Del. Don Scott (D–Newport News), the top Democrat in the House of Delegates. “But how can we trust them when they have already shown they are not competent enough to be trusted to safeguard our current data?”

Scott suggested Senate Democrats refuse to pass a state budget unless Youngkin rejoins ERIC. But it’s not clear the idea has traction among the two top Democratic negotiators; neither Sen. Janet Howell (D–Fairfax) nor Sen. George Barker (D–Fairfax) responded to an email seeking comment on the idea by press time.

Beals cited several reasons for leaving ERIC in her letter: escalating costs, the exit of other states from ERIC and “controversy surrounding the historical sharing of data with outside organizations leveraged for political purposes.”

The latter claim appears to be a nod to an agreement ERIC signed with Becker’s Center for Election Innovation to conduct research on the effectiveness of postcards in spurring voter registration. Becker said the data was randomized and deleted after the study was completed. He noted the study was approved by member states, including Virginia.

Virginia’s ERIC membership fees increased from $37,000 during the last fiscal year to $54,000 this year, according to Gaines.

Becker said election officials like Beals were playing right into fake narratives.

“They know ERIC is not some Soros-funded globalist conspiracy,” he said. “They know ERIC is helping their voter lists, but they're succumbing to the disinformation and the pressure that comes with it.”

WUNC's Rusty Jacobs contributed to this report.