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Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has spent nearly half a million dollars over the past six years to find and remove outdated registrations from its voter database, a process Senate Republicans now want to take up in a partisan-driven review at added expense to taxpayers.
In the weeks since approving a far-reaching subpoena seeking access to sensitive voter information, GOP lawmakers in favor of the effort have claimed the vast troves of data are necessary to identify voters who shouldn’t have cast a ballot in either the November 2020 or May 2021 elections.
The senators in charge of the investigation have not defined how they will prove a voter is “illegal” if they suspect fraud, nor have they acknowledged that Pennsylvania has already spent $403,904 for access to a sophisticated voter list maintenance program that regularly performs the analysis Republicans say they are seeking.
Senate Republicans, in justifying the investigation, have claimed there is a need to investigate the “validity” of ballots cast during the previous elections, despite several court cases that found no evidence of widespread fraud. They have often pointed to a 2019 auditor general report identifying potential birthdate inaccuracies and duplicate information in fewer than 1% of voter registrations.
The Department of State at the time pushed back on the auditor general’s analysis, saying it had “incorrectly flagged thousands of records as potential concerns.”
That same auditor general report recommended, as one of the potential solutions to catching and rectifying inaccurate voter registrations, that Pennsylvania take greater advantage of its membership in the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a consortium of states that created and manages the list maintenance program.
The state department has, in the years since, made nearly full use of the voter list maintenance features offered to members of ERIC — except for one.
Because of a provision in the state’s Election Code, Pennsylvania cannot use the death record matching service that would automatically identify active voter registrations for likely dead Pennsylvania residents.
“We need a legislative fix to use the ERIC death file,” said Department of State spokesperson Wanda Murren. “Pennsylvania law is very specific about what sources can provide ‘proper proof’ that a voter has died.”
Under the law, the state department can only remove a voter registration for a dead person through a manual process such as verifying the death with records from the Department of Health, newspaper obituaries, or letters issued by the local register of wills.
The state has only used ERIC’s death records once, to settle a lawsuit. The Public Interest Legal Foundation, a conservative-aligned nonprofit that regularly sues states over alleged voter registration inaccuracies, sued Pennsylvania in October 2020 claiming 21,000 dead Pennsylvanians remained on voter rolls.
To settle the suit, the Department of State agreed to use ERIC’s death records to identify voter registrations for Pennsylvanians who have likely died. Using the tool, Pennsylvania found 5,095 registrations for likely dead voters and sent those to counties to follow up on, Murren said.
Such a settlement, which uses a method otherwise prohibited by state law, is legal, said Michael Dimino, an election law professor at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, because the two parties disagreed on whether the state law was consistent with federal voter maintenance statutes, creating an ambiguity.
Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), who took over and renewed the election investigation in August after it was inactive for months, said any legislative fixes to the voter registration system will come after the inquiry ends.
“It makes sense to address as many issues as possible after the investigation concludes so we can fix any other weaknesses in the system that we uncover in the course of our review,” he wrote in an email to Spotlight PA.
When asked how the Republican-led investigation would differ from the voter list maintenance the state already pays for, Dush did not answer and pointed to the findings in the 2019 auditor general report.
“We do not know why these discrepancies exist. As we move forward with the investigation, we hope to determine the weakness in the system that allow these anomalies to persist in the system,” Dush wrote.
How ERIC works
A group of seven states — with the help of the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan public policy nonprofit — created ERIC in 2012 to address the daily changes in voter registrations as people move, die, and change their names.
The patchwork of federal and state retention laws that govern how and when voter registrations can be removed from the rolls, along with the maintenance workload that election administrators must handle, presents “a real challenge,” said Shane Hamlin, executive director of ERIC.
“So on any given day, your voter registration rolls are going to be out of date,” Hamlin said. “They’re only as current as your ability to keep up with the rate of change, if you will, in those records, and ERIC provides those tools.”
Pennsylvania joined the consortium in 2015 and is now one of 30 member states plus Washington, D.C. that contributes data to ERIC to improve the quality of their voter rolls.
Using ERIC’s tools, states such as Pennsylvania regularly receive reports when a voter moves to a different city or state, changes their name, or dies. States can then use these reports to either notify the voters and update their registrations, or confirm a death and remove the person altogether.
In 2020, the state department and county election officials used ERIC reports to contact more than 90,000 voters who had potentially moved within the state, moved to a different state, or registered more than once in Pennsylvania.
ERIC compares its members’ collective records against other databases — such as Social Security numbers, Department of Motor Vehicles records, and address changes — to identify whether a voter registration needs to be updated or removed.
Members anonymize sensitive data such as dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, and Social Security numbers before submitting them to the ERIC system, so the software never has access to the information itself.
This makes stealing and exploiting the data “almost impossible,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Research & Innovation, which studies election administration. Becker helped the seven founding states create ERIC when he worked for Pew.
“You would need two separate code keys stored in two separate places to decipher that information,” Becker said. “It’s much easier just to break into the DMV database.”
In response to outcry from Democrats and election security experts, Republicans have said any personal data the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee obtain in response to the subpoena will be stored safely, and any vendor contracted to analyze private voter information will sign nondisclosure agreements.
“The committee will do everything in its power to ensure the vendor that handles this information will keep private information just that — private,” Dush recently wrote.
For the time being, Republicans have agreed to hold off on hiring a vendor to analyze the voter data until after Commonwealth Court weighs in on challenges to the Senate committee’s authority to enforce the subpoena.
Senate Democrats, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and state Sen. Art Haywood (D., Montgomery) filed separate lawsuits, which have since been consolidated into one case. All parties filed an application for an expedited review Wednesday and are awaiting a ruling.
This article was produced in collaboration with Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization focused on election administration and voting access.