A nationwide program that the state of Alabama contracts with to maintain voter information is coming into question after an Alabama Secretary of State candidate announced he will withdraw the state from the program if he is elected.

Rep. Wes Allen (R), said the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) is a George Soros-funded organization.

“Alabama taxpayers do not want their information provided to a Soros-funded, leftist group like ERIC,” Allen said.

Current Secretary of State John Merrill, who is term-limited from running again, signed a contract between the state and ERIC in 2015. The state pays a fee of $28,000 per year, which Merrill feels is a good deal for the services offered.

“No state has the capacity to do what ERIC does,’’ Merrill said. “No state has the financial resources to do what ERIC does. No state has the ability, the personnel, or the extra budget to do what ERIC does.

“So if they can’t do it, how are you going to do that work," Merrill asked?

As for the Soros’ allegations, Merrill said, “The problem is, ignorant people have information introduced to them, they get a toenail sliver piece of it, and they think it’s enough to write a master’s thesis because they heard somebody say that George Soros was supportive of ERIC and he helped create it.”

Allen disagrees.

“Through the Pew Charitable Trust, their funding partner is Open Society,” said Allen. “Well, Open Society is George Soros. So, even though the Soros money may have been all spent by now, there’s no dispute that Soros’ money helped feed the project.

“Alabama can police our own voter rolls," Allen added. "Paying about $25,000 a year in taxpayer money to a private non-profit organization - I think Alabama has the resources to do it ourselves.”

According to its website, ERIC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist states in improving the accuracy of its voter rolls and increase access to voter registration for all eligible citizens. It was formed in 2012 with assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

ERIC claims to help states maintain voter rolls by identifying potential registered voters who have passed away, moved out of state or have duplicate registrations. In Alabama, Merrill said ERIC has identified more than 19,000 potential dead voters, more than 22,000 potential cross-state movers, and more than 24,000 voter records of potential duplicates.

Merrill also said ERIC can assist in locating and removing illegal immigrants from voting. However, the state’s contract with ERIC, which Merrill provided to 1819 News, states, “Under no circumstances shall the members transmit any record indicating an individual is a non-citizen of the U.S.’’

As of October 2021, 31 states plus the District of Columbia were members of ERIC. However, Louisiana recently suspended its participation after allegations against the program surfaced.

In a press release, Allen claimed ERIC was originally managed by David Becker, a well-known Democrat election lawyer who became the architect of ERIC after serving in the Justice Department during the Obama Administration. Becker created the Center for Election Innovation and Research, the same organization accused in 2020 of distributing millions from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Democrat-led counties.

“I don’t know how Alabama got mixed up with these people, but nothing like this will ever happen under my watch if I am elected to serve as Alabama’s next Secretary of State,’’ Allen said. “Soros can take his minions and his database and troll someone else because Alabamians are going to be off-limits – permanently.”

Allen is not the only one concerned with ERIC. Members of the state legislature are considering legislation to end the state’s contract with the organization. Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia, which are members of ERIC, are being sued for blocking a review of voter registration records.

J. Christian Adams, the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), which filed the lawsuits, said not making information about voter maintenance public is illegal. Adams said his foundation is suing over the program’s contractual agreement for states to hide information from the public in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

“The National Voter Registration Act has a public disclosure provision,’’ Adams said. “All these maintenance documents are public. You have a right to publicly inspect them.”

The Act requires “the states to maintain for public disclosure, for a minimum two-year period, all records pertaining to the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.”

ERIC provides data to member states which, in turn, provides data to counties about registered voters and those who are eligible or possibly ineligible to vote.

Each month, Alabama receives a list of possible voter issues from ERIC. It is then up to each county’s Board of Registrars to investigate and contact the voter, if possible. Issues that may send a red flag include potentially deceased voters, those who have possibly moved, and any duplicate registrations. After looking into individual voters, the county is responsible for contacting the Secretary of State’s office, when necessary, to delete obsolete voters from the state’s voter rolls.

Once a year, ERIC sends a list of people in the state that have received a driver’s license or identification card, so someone can contact them to offer voter registration. Merrill said the list helps with voter outreach across the state.

The information shared to ERIC from the Secretary of State’s Office is a voter list and driver’s license data. The DMV information includes minors who are not old enough to vote.

Allen said sharing of information makes him uncomfortable and he believes there could be a political agenda at play.

“It’s personal information that’s being dumped every 60 days to ERIC,’’ he said. “I think it’s concerning.”

Merrill said that as part of the contract with ERIC, information is not shared with any other organizations or groups.

“ERIC is strictly prohibited from selling, sharing or disclosing Alabama’s data to any person, party, organization or group,’’ Merrill said.

According to ERIC, the information is protected by cryptographic one-way hash. A cryptographic has function (CHF) maps data using a fingerprint that makes it impossible to retrieve the original data. In simple terms, an algorithm allows users to encrypt data that can only be retrieved with a password or another function. It is possible for this information to be breached. This type of data is often called a “digital fingerprint.” CHF can be breached, although, in the digital world, they are known to offer top security.

Former Secretary State Office employee and current candidate for Secretary of State, Ed Packard, said he was around when the state joined ERIC. He confirmed that ERIC developed the software that protects information. Therefore, ERIC could "decrypt" information, but he said he has never seen evidence of that power being abused.

READ PART II: ERIC under microscope after allegations of liberal agenda

"Theoretically, that means the people at ERIC could unhash that data and they could actually view it," said Packard. "But I have not seen any reason to think that they would do anything like that. My experience with ERIC has been very positive; they have always been very professional. I cannot speak to what they do behind closed doors and I don't think anyone else can either."

Still, Adams said states are blocking a review of these records, making accountability impossible.

“Federal law requires public inspection,’’ Adams said. “ERIC requires states to not follow federal law.”

However, Adams said it is better in 2022 for states to be a part of ERIC than to not be a part of ERIC.

Packard does not believe ERIC is violating the National Voter Registration Act.

"I worked on the original implementation on the NVRA back in 1993 and '94," Packard said. "I don't think that data being protected violated NVRA."

Packard said any individual can check to make sure ERIC is working.

"Anybody can get a copy of the statewide voter files," Packard said. "Or they can get a sample of it, like say from Montgomery County or Jefferson County or wherever, and they can actually replicate what ERIC is doing. They can actually get, for example, the Social Security Master Death Index, and then they can run the comparison to see if Social Security actually said these people were dead. Or, they could share it with other states and find out if an Alabamian actually registered to vote in another state or actually voted in another state, along with Alabama."

Packard said he once saw a case where ERIC alerted the state about a man who voted in Alabama and in Washington in 2018.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin released a statement about his state pulling out of ERIC until more can be found about the program.

“When Louisiana joined ERIC under my predecessor, we did so under the impression that it would enhance the accuracy of our voter rolls and strengthen Louisiana’s election integrity,’’ Ardoin said. “After reading about these allegations and speaking with election attorneys and experts, I have determined that it may no longer be in Louisiana’s best interests to participate in this organization. It is vital that any legitimate allegation of voter fraud or possible misuse of our voters’ personal information is investigated. I look forward to ERIC’s swift response to these allegations.”

“The next thing that Louisiana does in an election or election administration that we model after will be the first [that we model after],’’ Merrill said.

Merrill said ERIC helps promote security, transparency and accountability.

“The voter rolls are the basic, foundational building block for successful election administration,” Merrill said.

Leaving ERIC would have a direct impact on voter integrity in the state, according to Merrill.

“The state of Alabama could spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a recurring annual basis and still not be able to provide the same level of services,” Merrill said.

The state of Alabama has removed more than 1.351 million registered voters from the voter rolls since Merrill has been in office. He said many of those are because of the help from ERIC. Without ERIC, Alabama could only use the National Change of Address Forms and Medical Records from the Department of Forensics, according to Merrill.

“If elected as Secretary of State, how would Representative Wes Allen ensure that voters who have moved or have passed away are purged from our voter list without the necessary data that ERIC provides?” Merrill said. “By leaving ERIC for cheap political points, Representative Allen could undermine the election security measures that have made Alabama the gold standard for election integrity throughout the nation.”

Allen said he would use the resources the state already has to clean voter rolls on a regular basis.

“We’ve got things in place now, statute-wise,” Allen said. “Title 17, when people pass away, we can get them off the voter rolls. We passed a bill last year in the House and Senate to help us further utilize the National Change of Address product through the postal service, to help identify people that have moved out of the state to get them off the voter rolls, and we’ve also got a law in place now that allows for folks to be removed when they break the law and are not eligible to vote due to committing a crime.”

Packard said if he wins the office of Secretary of State, he would like to keep ERIC. However, he said he will put voters in the state first.

“If there is a groundswell of Alabamians who are concerned about ERIC and who want Alabama to cancel its membership in ERIC, I, as Secretary of State, will cancel our membership in ERIC," Packard said. "I will not sacrifice Alabamians’ confidence in our elections, in general, or voter registration, in particular, by remaining a member of ERIC.” 

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email erica.thomas@1819News.com.