The Pennsylvania Department of State in 2020 apparently transferred partial data profiles of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians to a nonprofit group through an intermediary as part of the department’s attempt to get more “eligible but unregistered” citizens registered and to the polls.
That outreach to the “EBUs” was a requirement as part of the commonwealth’s membership in a multistate organization called Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which has been stung in recent months as a number of Republican-led states have left the compact.
Although it does not appear anything illegal or untoward happened with the data transfer, some elected Republicans in Pennsylvania who were already hostile to ERIC say that data transfers outside of the state’s custody or outside of ERIC invite trouble, whether intentional or accidental.
Member states share their voter databases with ERIC and update them regularly. ERIC then uses data-matching technology to detect when, for example, voters move from Pennsylvania to New Jersey but forget to take themselves off the voter rolls, thereby becoming registered in two jurisdictions. Sticking with that example, the matching process can only take place if both those states are ERIC members.
“Keeping voter rolls up to date is a challenge because, every day, voters move or die. Voters don’t always remember to update their registration. ERIC was created to address these challenges,” the center’s website says.
More recently, Republicans have chafed at the ERIC requirement that the state also use ERIC to reach out to EBUs, a group that can be identified “by comparing motor vehicle licensing data to voter data.”
ERIC is the brainchild of David Becker, a lawyer who joined the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998. More recently, while still a voting member of ERIC’s board, he has been an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump — especially some of Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud. The sum of the conflict, however, has only made the decision easier for some Republican states to head for the exits.
Becker is also the co-founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission, according to the CEIR website, is to “restore trust in the American election system and promote election procedures that encourage participation and ensure election integrity and security.”
And it is CEIR who was the recipient of the data transfer in question.
In July 2020, Becker reached out to several states as part of the EBU outreach process, providing member states with a “general timeline” of how the EBU outreach would happen.
According to the email, ERIC would first provide a raw list of EBUs to the state, and the state would “clean” that data. Afterwards, the state would upload the cleaned data back to ERIC, and ERIC would then transfer it to the CEIR.
“CEIR completes a randomization process” with the data, the email from CEIR’s Erica Frazier goes on to say. “This process will produce two lists. The first list will be a small control group. The second, much larger list will receive the first round of mailers (this is the “treatment group”).”
Republican State Senator Chris Dush, says the activity raises a host of issues.
“This has been one of the areas we have been investigating and it causes me great concern that ERIC is passing Pennsylvanian’s private information off to third parties,” said Dush, chair of the Senate State Government Committee. “It is actually one of the reasons why I recently called for Pennsylvania to leave ERIC.
“Access to otherwise private data is not something that our state should be giving to third party organizations with known partisan ties. This has the appearance of being a maneuver to circumvent the intent of the laws which protect Personally Identifiable Information (PII). We are potentially enabling partisan registration drives by providing these entities with a statewide list of every eligible but unregistered voter and their demographic information.”
Essentially what Dush is arguing is the state is prohibited from releasing certain personal information to third parties. It does, however, have legal permission to share that information with ERIC. If the state had passed the data straight to CEIR, it’s possible it might have violated those legal provisions, but the state can claim to have violated no laws if all it did was share it with ERIC, and then ERIC later passed it on to a third party.
Broad + Liberty asked both Becker and the Pennsylvania Department of State why the data treatments, like creating randomized lists, could not be done completely within ERIC or the DOS, instead of needing to be transferred over to CEIR. We also asked for a description of what legal and technical safeguards were in place for data transfers like this.
The requests for comment were not returned.
A page on ERIC’s website says “EBU Reports contain only limited MVD Data. There is no political party affiliation, age, or racial data in these reports. The report also does not include Social Security, Driver’s License, or state-issued ID card numbers.”
The same page also claims that ERIC identified over 17 million EBUs across 29 states in 2020 — the highest EBU-identification total in 11 years. ERIC’s website also says in that same time period, its matching software identified 1 million in-state duplicates and about 11.5 million cross-state movers.
Because it is a nonprofit, Becker’s CEIR does not have to disclose its donors. It is modestly funded at about a million dollars a year according to IRS documents, and in 2019 (the last year for which IRS data is available) he earned about $215,000 in total compensation as executive director of CIER.
Becker and the DOS also did not answer a question as to whether the requirement for EBU outreach was a must-have in their opinion, given that some Republican-leaning states have said they might be inclined to stay in the organization if it were focused exclusively on maintaining clean voter rolls.
But this option appears to be of little interest to Dush.
“Reaching out to people who have already made the conscious decision to not be registered is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ERIC. As some states who have left ERIC have pointed out, ERIC has tight requirements and, in some cases, restricts the way that states can use data reports,” Dush said.
“I’ve also heard countless reports about how ERIC fails to keep our voter rolls clean. I think Pennsylvania may be able to do a better job on its own, and that’s why I’ve publicly called for Pennsylvania to leave ERIC. As the chair of the State Government Committee, I plan on charting a course for Pennsylvania to clean its voter rolls independently this legislative session.”
Aware that Republicans nationwide have been claiming he is a partisan actor, Becker is fighting back against those characterizations. Last month, the CEIR website posted an open letter from 26 Republican election officials from around the country expressing their faith in Becker.
“Extremists are targeting Becker and CEIR, seeking to undermine their work to support the professional civil servants who work to ensure secure elections,” the letter said.
“CEIR works to maintain its nonpartisan and bipartisan credentials. Three of the six members of CEIR’s board are Republicans, and despite false claims to the contrary, CEIR has never taken any funding from George Soros or any organization affiliated with him,” the letter continued. “CEIR’s Chief of Staff worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee before joining CEIR. Becker has never had a job working for a political party or candidate, and does not contribute to any political campaigns.”
Amid the controversy, Becker announced last month his intention to forego the non-voting board seat he has had with ERIC for years.
The CEIR has also been the target of Republican ire because it received a bulk grant in 2020 from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for election assistance in the middle of the pandemic, grants that were then distributed among different states.
The mere suggestion of Zuckerberg money raises the suspicions of GOPers because of the many news reports and opinion analysis that suggested Zuckerberg’s donations to another nonprofit, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, was skewed towards Democratic states.
Broad + Liberty’s own reporting on the CTCL grants raised questions about the distribution of the funds in Pennsylvania, the involvement of then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar making an individual invitation for a grant to Bucks County before there was an open call for grant invitations, and the involvement of several other groups in the grant distribution process who were never formally announced as partners in the project.
Florida, West Virginia, Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio have all either left ERIC or announced their intentions to do so.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports