OF ALL THE STRANGE, conspiratorial, and potentially dangerous theories Donald Trump and his allies came up with in the days after the 2020 election, this was the strangest, the most conspiratorial, the most potentially dangerous. Millions of electronic ballots for Trump had been “deleted,” and hundreds of thousands more had been “switched” to Joe Biden, Trump and his cronies in media, political, and legal circles insisted — thanks to software designed at the behest of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to rig foreign elections. Never mind that Chavez had been dead since 2013. Never mind that even Fox News’ researchers said the claims about Dominion Voting Systems were “100 percent false.”
Fox ultimately paid Dominion $787 million after its hosts ignored the network’s research department and spread lies about the firm. But the consequences his allies have faced for pushing lies about the 2020 election have not diminished the former president’s appetite for conspiracy theories. If anything, they have only stoked it.
Since then, Trump has fixated on new bogeymen. Lately, he has found one in a mundane nonprofit designed to spot the very voter fraud Team Trump professes to hate. Until recently, 33 states and the District of Columbia — a mixture of solidly Republican, Democratic, and battleground states — used data from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to spot voting irregularities and to identify and reach voters who haven’t yet registered, a group that numbered 4.4 million people in 2022. ERIC has been employed in this way since 2012, without incident or controversy. But in Trump’s imagination, ERIC is the engine for election rigging.
Last March, on his social media platform, Trump fumed that Republican governors should “immediately pull out of ERIC,” and falsely labeled it a “terrible Voter Registration System that ‘pumps the rolls’ for Democrats and does nothing to clean them up.” Over the past year, Trump has remained fixated on ERIC, sources who speak to him say. He’s gone so far as to wonder aloud what can be done in the future to make it “illegal” nationwide — while key allies have begun a largely under-the-radar effort to market a replacement system. One person close to him has dubbed ERIC Trump’s “new Dominion.”
Just like Dominion — or, should we say, just like the Dominion in Trumpland’s fever projections — ERIC is part of a larger architecture of voter fraud, one that has to be ripped out and replaced with a MAGA alternative before America goes to the polls in November. “Stop the Steal” die-hards are vying for spots in the 2024 campaign legal team. MAGA attorneys are challenging laws that make it easier to vote in Democratic strongholds. Trump’s allies continue to question the integrity of the vote, even if polls show him slightly ahead. Because there can be no question about the final tally, in the Trump inner circle’s view. There is only an election that ensures the right result: Trump’s restoration to the White House.
You’ve probably never even heard of ERIC — until now, you’d have no reason to. So here’s a brief primer: ERIC was created in 2012 by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts. It started with seven original member states with a goal of helping modernize their outdated, often paper-record-based voter-registration data — and offers trustworthy information to clean up voter rolls of deceased or ineligible voters. States are then able to securely share specific information about voters, like the last four digits of a Social Security number or a driver’s license number, to eliminate any confusion about who a voter is and whether they’re eligible to register.
John Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, was a fan. Having access to a pool of specific information about who’s eligible to vote — and who’s not — seemed like a gift. But when he traveled a couple of years ago to Washington, D.C., where renowned conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell was hosting a private, four-hour meeting for secretaries of state, he found himself in a lonely minority of ERIC supporters.
At that meeting, Mitchell made herself clear: She wanted these secretaries of state to pull out of ERIC. It was being used unfairly “to promote more Democrat registrations,” Mitchell complained, according to Merrill’s recollection. What’s more, ERIC was actually created and funded by George Soros, the billionaire liberal donor and ultimate bête noire among GOP politicians and right-wing media. “Basically, what they wanted to talk about was why we needed to get rid of ERIC,” Merrill tells Rolling Stone.
This was, to Merrill’s ears, odd. He knew Mitchell was a Trump ally; she served as a Trump 2020 campaign attorney and sat in on the infamous January 2021 phone call in which the former president demanded that the Georgia secretary of state “find” him 11,780 votes to overturn the state’s election. Merrill was a Trump man himself. But this Soros stuff was bizarre. Merrill adds, “Not from Cleta Mitchell or anyone have I ever seen any empirical data that would support the position that George Soros is involved in or related to or had any influence at all in the creation or in the administration of the ERIC system.”
So Merrill spoke up. ERIC was an incredibly valuable tool in protecting and administering free and fair American elections, Merrill told the room. He proposed an “information audit” to determine whether any partisan third parties had been involved in the nonprofit, whether it had adhered to its bylaws, and whether it had used its budget appropriately.
“They were very cool to my position,” Merrill says.
That meeting was just one part of what has become a sustained pressure campaign against ERIC, which has risen to the highest levels of the Republican Party, that involves angry demands from the former president, conspiracy theories in far-right media, and GOP secretaries of state too willing to give into them; nine Republican-led states have left ERIC in the past two years.
Trump-aligned activists’ efforts to discredit the system and strong-arm states into withdrawing opens up the possibility that departing state members — including a number of key 2024 battleground states — could face chaos on Election Day and afterward.
“Their voter lists are likely to be significantly less accurate,” David Becker, a co-founder and former executive director of ERIC, says of the states that have left ERIC. Becker resigned from the organization in 2023 following a right-wing pressure campaign against him. “There will be old records on the voter lists of people who are no longer eligible in the state that will fuel false claims of potential voter fraud. And there will be inaccurate records [of those] who are eligible in the state who moved within the state that they will likely not catch.”
That’s a huge problem. “Faulty voter files create long lines on Election Day, delays in getting mail-in ballots, an increase in provisional ballots, and delays in determining a winner,” Becker says. “The bigger potential damage here is that election losers — people who have lost an election or perceive themselves to be about to lose an election — will have more time and more space to create false narratives about an election being stolen.
“The more problems at the polls, the more lines, the more provisional ballots, the longer it takes to count overall ballots and get an unofficial winner, those all feed into the potential for chaos and even incitement to violence by election losers.”
In other words, the 2024 election could see the same maelstrom following 2020.
THE SPRAWLING CONSERVATIVE QUEST against ERIC appears to have begun in earnest in the swamps of conspiracy-theory media. In January 2022, the pro-Trump blog Gateway Pundit published a three-part series accusing ERIC of being a secret plot by Soros to create a “left-wing voter registration drive disguised as voter-roll clean up.”
It’s a far cry from the boring but necessary work ERIC actually does. In addition to checking for outdated voter information, it produces reports on citizens who are eligible to vote but unregistered. Once every two years, ERIC requires its participating states to conduct outreach to those eligible but unregistered potential voters and offer them information on how they can register to vote — often via postcards.
Some Republican officials, including Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, who withdrew his state last year, have objected to that requirement, writing that “members should not be forced” to conduct such outreach if they don’t believe it’s “necessary or relevant.” But it’s hardly the stuff of florid conspiracy theories spun by the Gateway Pundit.
When the site ran its series on ERIC, 33 states were members of the nonprofit. But after, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin announced he would suspend the state’s participation in ERIC following concerns from the public about “potential questionable funding sources” and “possibly partisan actors” accessing ERIC data. As the right-wing conspiracy meme gained steam, eight other Republican-led states, including critical 2024 ones such as Virginia, Ohio, and Florida, followed suit, leading ERIC membership to plummet to 24 states and the District of Columbia today.
“I’m disappointed that some of my fellow secretaries of state would surrender to the conspiracy theories,” says Adrian Fontes, the Democratic secretary of state in Arizona. “If they care about voter-file accuracy and integrity, ERIC is the only tool available to make that a reality.”
Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt says, “The perversity with a lot of this is that the arguments against ERIC are allegedly coming from a place of interest in election integrity, when in reality, ERIC is quite possibly the most valuable, useful tool that we have to strengthen election integrity.” A Republican who considers himself a hawk on election-integrity issues, Schmidt served as Philadelphia city commissioner and helped investigate instances of voter fraud that led to federal prosecutions.
But the theories about ERIC began to spread. It became such “a big thing,” says Merrill, the former Alabama secretary of state, that he worried “certain allies” who “do not have [Trump’s] best interests at heart” would try to sway the former president into waging war on ERIC.
Merrill says he’s had several conversations with Trump over the past year to make it clear he’s steadfastly pro-ERIC. During these brief talks, including a 30-minute breakfast at Mar-a-Lago, Merrill told Trump to call him any time if he wanted to understand the benefits of ERIC — why its conservative critics were dead wrong.
It didn’t work: Though, Merrill says, the former president politely listened to his defense of ERIC, Trump has yet to take him up on his offer. In fact, in the time since that breakfast, according to other sources close to Trump, the ex-president went in the opposite direction and only fell deeper into the ERIC-hating lore. At different points this summer, Trump vented about ERIC to some of his lawyers and campaign staff, simply referring to it as a “really bad” system created “by George Soros” that needs to be “taken out.” (A rep for Soros’ Open Society Foundations has said it “never funded” ERIC. A spokesman for Trump did not provide comment for this story.)
TRUMP’S PLANS FOR the 2024 election extend well beyond meddling with ERIC.
The former president was removed from the White House, he believes, because his allies were weak — not like Trump, who has called for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” to nullify the 2020 election results. Trump has spent the past three years moaning to friends at his clubs, to conservative lawmakers, and to political advisers that Democrats will try to “cheat” again, and that the GOP must do “everything” it can to make sure liberals are “stopped,” according to four people familiar with this matter.
One key component: making sure his government-in-waiting is stocked with people truly “tough” on supposed Democratic “rigging” in elections.
“The [former] president has pushed for us to hit the Democrats on all sides on the [upcoming] election,” says a person close to Trump who has spoken to him about this matter multiple times.
Back in early 2021, then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi proved to be one of his more potent enemies, pushing through an impeachment of Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, on the other hand, was a dependable Trump ally, rounding up dozens of colleagues to sign onto the Trump-backed Supreme Court brief seeking to toss out the election and echoing Trump’s lies about voting machines rigging vote tallies. Pelosi was gone soon thereafter. And in October 2023, MAGA Republicans elected one of their own to the position: Johnson.
Not long afterward, Trump said he was pleased, because “[Mike is] good on elections,” according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
Ahead of the 2022 midterms, there was a large-scale attempt to place as many MAGA-friendly election deniers in as many key positions as possible — particularly in secretary of state posts that could profoundly affect the 2024 outcome. That plan was dashed when the Democratic Party overperformed at the polls, forestalling a predicted GOP “red wave.”
But with Johnson’s rise, the leadership for congressional Republicans has only become more drenched in right-wing election denial. And think tanks and party bigwigs are providing a blueprint for what comes next. Project 2025, a policy conglomerate run out of the influential Heritage Foundation, is providing plans for how a reelected Trump could revamp the Department of Justice and other independent bodies into little more than personal attack dogs to sic on his political enemies.
Plus, there are strategies in place for Nov. 5, 2024. Major party organs like the Republican National Committee are launching programs to recruit and deploy tens of thousands of GOP poll watchers and “election integrity directors” to battlegrounds in order to — in the words of Trump ally and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel — “hold Democrats accountable for bad laws that make voting less secure.” And in a December speech in Iowa, Trump asked supporters to “go into” Democratic cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta so they can “guard the vote.”
Then there are mail-in ballots. They proved crucial for Biden’s 2020 victory, and Trump has repeatedly called them a “scam.” So over the past three years, MAGA Republicans in a number of states have passed bills attempting to restrict voting access, particularly around mail-in ballots. In private, Trump has made it obvious in his conversations with political aides and conservative grassroots leaders that he only views mailed-in ballots as wholly legitimate if they’re sent in by his supporters.
Finally, Trump needs lawyers he can trust, especially now that attorneys who helped his efforts to overturn the 2020 election have struck plea deals and cooperated with prosecutors in Georgia’s Fulton County election-interference case. “A better, smarter legal team than last time” is how a person close to Trump put it.
Another person with knowledge of this matter says that the ex-president has already fielded meetings and phone calls from conservative lawyers who are, in the source’s characterization, preemptively “auditioning” for roles on such a legal team, should one be formed this year.
As recently as this summer, Trump had talked to right-leaning legal counselors about the feasibility of laying the groundwork for various post-election “audits” of mailed ballots — inspired partly by a shambolic Arizona audit following the 2020 election — in parts of the United States that have historical track records of so-called problems, two sources present for these casual discussions recall.
There are few people more central to Trump’s plans than Cleta Mitchell, the lawyer pushing the secretaries of state to pull out of ERIC at that D.C. meeting. As recently as September, Trump privately praised Mitchell’s work, saying she is going to be “very important” for the next election and beyond.
Once a member of the old-school Republican mainstream, Mitchell has become the most ardent of election deniers. Along with participating in Trump’s 2021 call with Raffensperger, she stunned a Fox News host on-air in November 2020 when she challenged the election results days after the network had already called the election for Biden.
That embrace of Trump dogma has given her staying power in the former president’s network of influential allies. But, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation, it irks some of Trump’s top attorneys working on his various criminal cases — many of which grew out of schemes to overturn the 2020 election. “Cleta is too militant, even for me,” one such lawyer says.
Mitchell sent a lengthy email in response to our reporting, which included insisting that ERIC “is a way to accomplish one of the left’s objectives, and to do so at taxpayer expense: register more people” to vote, “not removing bad registrations.” Mitchell offered up a number of her recurring criticisms of ERIC, Soros, and ERIC co-founder Becker, and noted: “I am proud of the work that we are doing and have been doing for the past three years and, yes, I think that what we are doing to try to restore the rule of law in elections is very important.” She also accused Rolling Stone of participating in “attacks” on “election integrity” activists, and also “me specifically.”
CONFUSION HAS FOLLOWED in the states Mitchell has persuaded to pull out from ERIC. Former member states have found themselves suddenly deprived of accurate voter-registration data and have scrambled to try to re-create a version of ERIC through side agreements with their neighbors still in the network, says Schmidt, the Pennsylvania secretary. He’s seen some states frantically search to find the most rudimentary public voter-registration data. “All you need is $20 and the ability to use Excel to do the analysis they’re doing,” he says.
But absent the kind of very specific personal information that’s only available through ERIC, “the data is going to be garbage and potentially result in voters being disenfranchised,” according to Schmidt. “You cannot just use, for example, name and birthday to go about taking steps to remove a voter,” he says. “That will result in a terrific number of false matches.”
The argument is more than theoretical. In 2005, Kansas developed the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. Much like ERIC, the network pledged to help states improve the accuracy of the data underlying their voter rolls by allowing member states to share registration information.
But Crosscheck relied heavily on using registrants’ names and birthdays to check for potentially duplicate registrations, leading to high rates of false positives. In one academic study of Crosscheck data, researchers found that the program wrongly flagged 99 percent of registrations. In 2019, Kansas agreed to settle a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and shut down Crosscheck following a data breach that exposed personal information of voters shared by the program.
With the demise of Crosscheck, and as larger, conservative-led states have walked away from ERIC, pro-Trump activists like Mitchell have promoted a new tool, dubbed the EagleAI Network, for states that have left the nonprofit. EagleAI was developed in 2022 by John W. Richards, a medical doctor and health care CEO from Alabama.
Mitchell has a number of ties to EagleAI, as the investigative watchdog Documented first detailed, including helping the group with strategic planning, legal advice, and hosting demonstrations of the software for her Election Integrity Network nonprofit.
EagleAI’s developers hinted at their ambition for the software in an August article for Just the News, a pro-Trump outlet. In the article and company documents published with the piece, the company said it wanted the software to be “the solution across the nation for use at all levels of Voter Roll validation, maintenance, and review.” In an email to Rolling Stone, Richards said that “while EagleAI could replace ERIC, doing so is not its mission.”
EagleAI claims that “hundreds of individuals and county election offices in 23 states have shown “interest” in using it. In December, the company gained its first government user in Georgia’s Republican-dominated Columbia County, though the state’s own director of elections, Blake Evans, said in a statement earlier this year that the EagleAI presentations he has seen are “confused and seem to steer counties towards unlawful list-maintenance activities.”
Schmidt, Pennsylvania’s top election official, is critical of software like EagleAI. “The data sets that they’re looking to use, such as property-tax records, should not be used to generate a list of voters who are ineligible” to vote, according to Schmidt, because plenty of eligible voters don’t always appear on them. “There’s any number of spouses who do not show up on property–tax records. No one who rents an apartment will show up on property-tax records.”
The software, he says, is “utterly unreliable” as a replacement for ERIC and would likely result in “a terrific number of challenges to voters who are registered and eligible,” as well as litigation against states or counties who use it for those purposes.
Richards tells Rolling Stone that property-tax records are only “a small part of the property data that EagleAI uses.” “To say that EagleAI data is ‘utterly unreliable’ is to also say that ERIC data is unreliable — we use the same primary sources,” he says. Richards acknowledges that “EagleAI does not have the Personal Protected Information that ERIC has,” like drivers-license numbers and partial Social Security numbers. But, he claims, “this does not make EagleAI less accurate.”
EagleAI also markets its platform for use not just by state and county election officials, but by ordinary citizens to spot “potential problem registrations for review and/or election challenges.” Conservative groups have already sponsored training sessions for activists to use the software, according to Documented.
Even aside from its potential use in government, some fear activists could use software like EagleAI to flood election officials with needless challenges to voters’ eligibility. “EagleAI presents a few concerns,” explains Andrew Garber, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice’s voting-rights and elections program. “One of them being that it seems to be a tool made to generate mass challenges.”
Garber says tools like EagleAI that can facilitate mass voter-eligibility challenges are “concerning” because of the effect they could have on election administration. “The people who run our elections have a lot to do. And when they get hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of challenges at the same time, they often have to investigate and come to determinations on those, which takes them away from their other really important work.” He adds that such tools can also “spread disinformation by giving the appearance that there’s something wrong with the voter rolls when, in fact, there isn’t.”
Richards dismisses such concerns, saying any challenges would “be due to the fact that there are a high number of problem registrations,” rather than anything to do with his software. He says EagleAI “will make county election officials more efficient” at handling challenges “because it makes finding evidentiary documentation more efficient and accurate.” He calls allegations that EagleAI could facilitate disinformation “laughable.” In her email to Rolling Stone, Mitchell defended EagleAI, claiming, “EagleAI as an alternative to ERIC simply means that it is a tool that will do what ERIC claims to do but doesn’t.”
IF TRUMP AND HIS LIEUTENANTS get their way, it’s possible that the failed efforts of 2020 and 2021 (culminating with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol) could be remembered as a mere dress rehearsal for whatever happens next — particularly if the presidential election is close.
The hollowing out of ERIC has started while EagleAI begins to take root. The speaker of the House is no longer just someone who will tolerate and back Trump’s 2020 election lies, but is now a man who once took the lead on Capitol Hill in trying to nullify that election outcome. And no one and no organization in the Republican Party that truly matters is pushing back on Trump’s authoritarianism; they’re adapting to it even when they aren’t excitedly throwing their arms around it.
In January 2023, Merrill stepped down as Alabama’s secretary of state, two years after admitting to “an inappropriate relationship” that upended his political career. His successor, Wes Allen, worked fast to do what Merrill would not. “Secretary of State Wes Allen has officially withdrawn from the Electronic Registration Information Center as his first official act in office,” a press release triumphantly announced.
Still, as Merrill decries MAGA elites’ assault on ERIC as a destructive endeavor, he nevertheless maintains common cause with even the most zealous of anti-ERIC conservatives. They all want to see Trump restored to the Oval Office, come January 2025.
Merrill tells Rolling Stone he is now running — unopposed — to be an Alabama Trump delegate for the 2024 Republican National Convention.
“When I spoke to [Trump] in August, I told him I would be helpful,” Merrill says. “He’s already given me some tasks.”
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