North Carolina was supposed to join a national voter roll maintenance program. Now, state Republicans want to nix that plan, thanks to right-wing conspiracy theories about the organization that have escalated in the past year.
The North Carolina GOP is seeking to block the state from enlisting in the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a bipartisan coalition seeking to maintain accuracy in voter rolls across state lines. Republican state lawmakers proposed repealing funding and the authorization for North Carolina to join the program in a recent House bill and via the House’s state budget proposal, potentially muddying state election administrators’ years-long effort to get the state enrolled.
Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, has been pushing for North Carolina to join the program since she first started the job in 2019.
“It was one of the items I highlighted in my first presentation to the House Elections Committee shortly after my appointment, and have been pursuing ever since,” she told TPM Tuesday.
“We thought we had a win because we got the funding and were taking steps to move forward with that membership,” she said, “because ERIC represents the only means through which we have a process to share data across state lines and keep our voter rolls as clean as possible.”
But on March 20, a handful of Republican legislators introduced House Bill 396, which would repeal prior authorizations for the state elections board to participate in the program. Rep. Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba, Iredell), who sponsored the bill, claimed to a local radio station that the legislation was driven by concerns from constituents about the security of their personal information rather than politics.
“I don’t see that we need to share the information of our citizens with everybody in the world,” he said.
A little over a week later, House leadership unveiled their state budget proposal, including a relevant policy provision: “The State may not become a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center, Inc. (ERIC).”
Bell told TPM that she hadn’t been in direct conversation with legislators about their reasoning, but she believes it goes back to misinformation that had been spread about the program over the past year.
“Everything seems to stem back to how the organization was funded,” Bell told TPM. “There have also been questions around the aspect of notifying [potential] voters of their eligibility to register to vote, whether that’s really the intent of the organization, and whether there’s any issue with other organizations being tied to it.”
She recalled a conference she said she attended in December, where she, alongside a couple of other North Carolina lawmakers, watched a presentation by ERIC executive director Shane Hamlin attempting to squelch any misapprehensions legislators may have about the program. According to Bell, Hamlin has even met with some state legislators to try to set the record straight but his explanations seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
ERIC became the target of right-wing conspiracy theories in early 2022, after the Gateway Pundit published a series of blog posts accusing the program of being a liberal plot, funded by billionaire George Soros, to control the democratic process. The program was founded in 2012 as a bipartisan effort between seven states with the help of election law advocate David Becker and Soros has never donated to the program.
To date, eight states—including founding member Virginia—have withdrawn from the program due to concerns inspired by the Gateway Pundit’s conspiracy theories. North Carolina may never even get far enough to join.
Hamlin published an open letter on March 2 trying to debunk the conspiracy theories on a wider platform, but it hasn’t yet prevented the program from bleeding participants.
“I felt like it was imperative for North Carolina to be a part of this and had hoped to move us forward,” Bell said, “but it appears that’s not where the sentiments of the legislature are at this time.”