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S3E2 - The Creation of ERIC and the Challenges of Keeping Voter Lists up to Date with John Lindback

In this episode, hosts Eric Fey and Brianna Lennon speak with John Lindback. He’s been involved in elections administration for many years and was the first Executive Director of ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center, after its creation in 2012.

They spoke about the creation of ERIC, how the multi-state voter-registration monitoring collaborative functions, as well as some of the challenges that come along with maintaining the integrity of a voter list.

High Turnout, Wide Margins Credits:
Managing Editor: Rebecca Smith
Managing Producer: Aaron Hay

Transcription of the episode is as follows:

John Lindback: The reason that people argue that they need to join ERIC is because you need to compare your data with other states, and that's obviously a good reason to join ERIC, but really the most important reason to join is to do all that data tracking within your state.

Brianna Lennon: Welcome back to High Turnout Wide Margins. This is Brianna Lennon. I'm the county clerk for Boone County, Missouri and with me is my co-host –

Eric Fey: Eric Fey, Director of Elections in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Brianna Lennon: And today, we're really excited to talk about voter list maintenance and the evolution of how we've gotten so much better at it with –

John Lindback: Hi, my name is John Lindback. I next, in 2024 will celebrate 30 years of being involved in elections administration. I started out in this business by accident, like everybody, nobody grows up saying, “When I grew up, I want to work in elections.” That was exactly the case for me. My wife and I lived in Alaska for 20-some years and during our time up there, a friend of ours got elected Lieutenant Governor, and in Alaska, the Lieutenant Governor is in charge of elections. They don't have a Secretary of State. She asked me to be her Chief of Staff and, as such, I had oversight of the Alaska Division of Elections and did that for six years.

I wasn't the Director of Elections in Alaska, but I was involved in hiring the director and I, on a daily basis, was in touch with the Division of Elections because she asked me to be her eyes and ears in regard to elections. It was the most high-profile duty of the Lieutenant Governor, and so, I got into it knee deep and that was where I had my first experience with purchasing a new voting system – Alaska switched from punch cards to optical scan voting while I had the job.

And at that point in – later on in 2001, I was hired by the Oregon Secretary of State to serve as the Director of Elections for the state of Oregon. So, I made the big move to Oregon and to an all vote by mail system. At that time, Oregon was the first state to convert to all vote by mail for all elections. They had just conducted the first presidential election in the country all by mail. I walked in in 2001 – a year after that election and spent the first few years on that job working with the county clerks in Oregon – sort of tinkering around the edges of the vote by mail system to improve things that weren't working so well and to keep those things that were working well functioning smoothly.

In 2009, I went from there to working for the Pew Charitable Trusts on a big project to improve voter registration and how voter registration works in the US, and the results – one of the results of that project was the creation of ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center – the multistate cooperative in which voter registration lists and DMV lists and the National Death Index and other sources and information are matched in order to help the member states keep voter lists current and up to date and also identify people who are not registered to vote so that information can be sent to them to register.

I worked as the first executive director of ERIC for almost four years before retiring from full time employment in 2017, and after that point, I have been working with some voting advocacy groups, such as the Institute for Responsive Government and the National Vote at Home Institute. So, I have been kept, you know, I keep dipping my toes in the water.

Eric Fey: So, John, I know we want to delve into ERIC in some depth, but before we do that, I think you're the first person we've had on the podcast that has ever worked in elections in Alaska, and, of course, every state is unique, but in terms of election administration – Alaska may be the most unique in that it has a relatively small population, but is the most vast state in terms of area and has voters in extremely remote areas. And I'm just wondering if you might talk a little bit about some of the unique challenges in running elections in Alaska.

John Lindback: Wow. Yeah. Alaska was a serious challenge in many ways. The vast territory means that you have election precincts in areas where the only way in or out is by an airplane or, you know, or a boat. And if you're a control freak, and you run elections, I wouldn't recommend Alaska as the place to do that because it's virtually impossible to control everything that goes on out there, particularly in those rural precincts. And you conduct your training for those folks months in advance and by the time that election day comes along, some of them may show up and some of them may not.

I think in the last election, I read that there were two villages in Alaska that never had an election at all, they never got results from them, and they never conducted an election. And to me – that might have been very surprising to some people – it wasn't surprising to me, given the challenges of running precincts in those rural areas. So, you know, everything from maintaining equipment, to villages like that, I mean – some of these are places that have 50 voters or less, and, you know, one of my favorite stories was always, you know, getting calls from our rural precinct. “Do we really have to open the polls at 7 a.m. on election day?” And the answer was, “Yes, it's the law,” and the argument that came back to us was, “Well, nobody gets up at 7 a.m., in the middle of winter, in a rural village in Alaska, and we go, “Okay, but it's the law,” and they would do it, but the only reason they would do it is that, you know, these were cash jobs, which are very rare in rural Alaska. To be one of the precinct workers, you actually got paid some cash, and if it wasn't for that, I'm not sure any of the rural precincts in rural Alaska would open at 7 a.m. But you know, that's just an example. The culture is so different and that sort of one size fits all rule is very difficult to apply in a place like that.

ERIC Fey: Alright, so let's fast forward, John – you’ve worked in Alaska, worked in Oregon, then you said you moved over to Pew, and that's where ERIC kind of began. So, if you could take all the listeners back to those early days at Pew with ERIC – How did it come about? What were the challenges? All those good things.

John Lindback: So, the project at Pew was actually born during a conference that the Pew Trust had after the 2008 presidential election. For those of you that are old enough – 2008, of course, was the year that Barack Obama was elected. It was a huge election at the time. The turnout was high, there was a lot of pressure on elections officials, and Pew had a one-day conference after that election and invited stakeholders from the various communities with an interest in the elections – including elections officials and advocacy groups, etc. And the consensus in that room was that there had been a lot of focus on voting machines and whether or not they work correctly, etc., prior to the election, but what was really the biggest lesson of that election was how poorly voter registration worked in this country.

And out of that consensus, the folks at Pew decided to put together a project on how can we make voter registration work better in America? How can we make sure that voter registration lists are better maintained in America. And so, they put together a team of people – I was hired to be on that team, David Becker was designated as the lead manager for that team, and we put together a large group of elections officials, academics, people from advocacy groups, and started discussions. And there were as many as you know, 35, 40 people in the room and we had a series of convenings, in which there was discussion on if we were going to tear it all down and start over again – what could we build to make voter registration work better here? Because not one person in the room – no matter who they were representing – thought that the voter registration system at the time worked well, and so, let's pretend it doesn't exist anymore and see if we can come up with some ideas on a voter registration system that works.

Out of those, out of those discussions came three major recommendations:

One was – every state should implement online voter registration.

Two – there should be this cooperative of states that work together to trade data, match data, and inform each other of movements by voters from around the country, and that was envisioned as ERIC.

And the third one was – there needs to be significant improvement on how voter registration is handled at DMVs across the country because the numbers coming out of DMVs were just pathetically low. There were only two states at the time that had good numbers coming out of their DMV offices in terms of total registrations – either updates are new registrations, and those two states were Michigan and Delaware. The numbers in the rest of the states were just really bad.

So, at that point, a decision was made at Pew as to what can we do to get ERIC started because the other two are sort of more based in state laws, and so, the team that I worked with at Pew started working on putting together an organization. We had seven states that helped launch it in 2013, and I was hired as the first executive director in 2014, I believe it was, and we just started building, getting more states to join. It was a slow process. There was nothing speedy about it because some states needed laws – new laws, and as you know, that takes some time. So, it was very careful, and it was complicated because we had to deal with issues like security, had to deal with budget and how we're going to pay for it, and we had to deal with a membership agreement and what that would look like in terms of the obligations for a state that joins ERIC – what they’re required to do.

So, there was a lot of legal work, there was a lot of technical work, and, you know, we had to find a place to house the data and have technical employees that could match all that data and get reports out to the states. So not an easy task, but it was done with care and it was done at a pace that made it work, and so, you know, I'm proud of ERIC, I'm proud of proud of what we built, and I think that the recent efforts to undo it – I just find it incredibly depressing to try to have folks tear down something that was so carefully built to be nonpartisan.

Brianna Lennon: Two of the things that you just said struck me. The first was that a consensus that came out of that first meeting was that the states needed to get together and do something and that it didn't turn into a conversation where – at the time, I'm sure there were some voices that said, “Maybe federalizing it would be the way to go and just having a single voter registration system would solve a lot of these problems,” but you didn't move in that direction.

John Lindback: There was a consensus that it would take even longer to get something like that through Congress and it would be difficult. The odds of failure of getting highly partisan Congress to adopt something like that – the odds were very, very low. That the odds were higher of getting the states to work together, and that the states would find it attractive that they were in control and the federal government was not in control of this, and one of the one of the chief things that we would talk about was, you know, this is an organization that you as states get to control. You'll have board members, each state will have representation in the governance structure, and the federal government will not be telling you how to do this, you get to decide how to do this, and the elections officials, of course, found that attractive because they never want the federal government telling them what to do. The idea of federalizing it never really got off the ground, you know, there was sort of slight conversations about it, but it was dispatched pretty quickly.

[High Turnout Wide Margins Mid-Break]

Brianna Lennon: So, you had mentioned that the conversation is really about like, if we could just start from nothing where we could we go, but there were alternatives at the time, like the cross state match?

John Lindback: Right. So, at the time, it was called the Kansas Project because the Secretary of State of Kansas at the time wanted to get this started – where the states would trade information on who voted in the last election and then they would compare that. And the main sort of preoccupation in that project was trying to catch people who may be voting in more than one state because there was a fear at the time that this was kind of a widespread problem that people could have voter registrations in more than one state and vote in more than one state. So, Kansas started this project, and the states submitted their data on who voted in the last election, and then that data was matched, and reports were sent back to the states on possible cases of double voting. The problem with that project was that the data matching was not very high quality and there were an enormous number of false positives on those lists. There were many, many more false positives than there were actual cases of double voting. In fact, it was probably 90% false positives, and then possible cases of double voting, which were then boiled down and weeded out because the evidence wasn't there that it was the same person.

So, there were a lot of states who were not satisfied with that project because they spent so much time working data that was not accurate. Thus, it left the door opened for ERIC, and, of course, ERIC was much more expansive, it didn't just focus on possible cases of double voting. Its primary focus was on identifying voter registrations that were out of date because people had either moved, or they passed away, and so, by exchanging data with other states and having a very powerful and accurate data matching system, ERIC was able to identify in-state movers, folks that had moved out of state, and then people who had died, and also it helped identify duplicate registrations within a state's voter database, which was always – and had always been a problem, and so, what ERIC offered was much more expansive than the Kansas Project ever offered, and then the Kansas Project, you know, picked up controversy here and there and was essentially abandoned, in part because ERIC’s membership was building and because ERIC offered the members so much more.

Brianna Lennon: Can you explain the structure of ERIC because when it's written about sometimes it sounds like it's this third party [that] has its own set of rules that are that they're imposing on these people and they're saying you have to do these things, and it's “they” and really, it's like two staff members and everybody else is a Board. So, can you talk a little bit about the structure and as the first executive director, how you finalized some of those plans to put in place how ERIC should be run?

John Lindback: You bet. So, there's a membership agreement that in order to join ERIC, a state signs the membership agreement, and the membership agreement and the bylaws include the governance structure. The structure of the governance changed over the course of like five or six years, so that now each member state has a member on the board of directors. So, the state and the Board of Directors hires the staff, there's a staff and like three people – an executive director and a couple of technical folks, and the states are in control. So, when they say “they,” “they” is the states. For a long time, it was it was very evenly distributed between Republican and Democratic states, and there was no partisanship involved. In my first four years as Executive Director, we did not have one vote on the Board of Directors that was divided or there were any dissenters – everything was unanimous because there was nothing political about it, people just wanted this organization to work well and provide them good, solid basic information on which voter registration records in their database were out of date because people had either moved or died, and that wasn't considered a partisan issue.

There was also the other side of ERIC that provided the political balance, which is the requirement that the states, before every federal election, send out information to people who are not registered on how to register to vote, and that was part of the balance when it was originally set up. For a certain part of the partisan community, the list maintenance was more important to them, and for other member states, that outreach to people who aren't registered, was, you know, more important to them than the list maintenance. But in order to be a member of ERIC, you had to do both, and there were requirements in the membership agreement on how often you had to request reports and how often you had to do your list maintenance, and so, the membership agreement was vitally important and the states had the power to change the membership agreement if they wanted to, and there was never any effort to do that while I was Executive Director, there was some efforts to do that prior to some of these states leaving, and the states that have left, it's my understanding that one of the things that they wanted to change about the membership agreement was that they didn't want to send out information to people who are not registered to vote anymore. They just wanted that to be optional and didn't want to be required to do that, and there was a disagreement among members of the Board on whether or not to change that, and unfortunately, it became partisan.

You know, it was heartbreaking to me, because we had gone through so many steps to try and shield ERIC from that, but I'll be frank with you, when Secretaries [of State], who are highly partisan officials get involved in some of these issues, it's not surprising that the atmosphere becomes more partisan, and that's exactly what happened.

Brianna Lennon: I know that you have expressed your opinion and hope for, you know, for what is happening now to not continue, but given that it is happening right now – do you have any advice for people in the elections field that are trying to figure out better ways to keep their voter roll up to date and now have had ERIC yanked away from him? With your experience otherwise in having to do voter list maintenance, what are some good things that we should be doing going into 2024?

John Lindback: Well, I would, I would suggest, you know – it's going to cost. It's gonna cost, to add to your budgets, it's gonna make it more expensive for you, but national change of address data, you need to start purchasing that and doing your own matching, and the matching will not be as accurate, but it's better than nothing. Same thing with Social Security death index data, if you can somehow get access to that, to help you identify people that have passed away, so you can get those registrations canceled. Other than those two things, I don't have a lot that I can suggest, because, you know, I think the – in Missouri, for example, your annual canvass that you do, that's going to become more important absent ERIC. I don't know how effective it is, you guys can answer that question. I can't. But it's better than not doing it would be my argument, and perhaps you need to consider doing that more often. Right now, you do it annually, as I understand, or every two years, something like that. Maybe you need to do that every six months, I don't know.

The beauty of ERIC was that you had access to that data anytime you wanted it. You could order it up and you could work that data, and now you're kind of on your own, and it will involve more effort and more expense, but maybe over the course of time with a different Secretary of State, you know, that sort of added expense and added effort could be used as a as an argument about why rejoining would be a good idea.

I mean, one of the one of the things that I have to say, I always find frustrating in talks about ERIC is that the reason that people argue that they need to join ERIC is because you need to compare your data with other states, and that's obviously a good reason to join ERIC, but really the most important reason to join is to do all that data tracking within your state. If you take a look at the ERIC reports and the statistics on the ERIC website, ERIC identified far more in state movers than it did out of state of course, and it turns out, if you look at the ERIC data that when someone moves, they're five times more likely to move within their state than they are to move out of state, and ERIC tracked all those in state moves. But all the focus seems to be on the comparison of data from other states. Of course, you know, that helps you track your out of state movers and the death data.

Let me give you an example, when Washington first joined ERIC – the state of Washington – they had been doing their own data matching against the national death data. When ERIC did it for them, they came up with thousands more people on their rolls that were deceased just because ERIC's data matching was so much more accurate. So, that's another factor there that people forget is ERIC is pretty darn good at matching data and determining what's a matching record.

Eric Fey: You've been listening to High Turnout Wide Margins, a podcast that explores local election administration. I'm your host, Eric Fey, alongside Brianna Lennon. Thanks to KBIA for making this podcast possible. Our Managing Editor is Rebecca Smith. Our Managing Producer is Aaron Hay. This has been High Turnout Wide Margins. And thanks for listening.

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After serving as Assistant Attorney General in the Missouri attorney general's office and as Deputy Director of Elections in the Missouri secretary of state's office, Brianna Lennon made the decision to pursue election administration at the local level. She was elected county clerk in Boone, Missouri, in 2018, making her responsible for conducting elections for more than 120,000 registered voters.
Eric Fey is a lifelong resident of St. Louis County, Missouri, who fell in love with election administration as a teenage poll worker. He has worked in the field for a decade, and became director of elections in 2015. He’s on the executive board of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities, and has observed elections in twelve countries, including Ukraine, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.