• Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Voting rights activists sound alarms over private tool that could lead to cancelling voter registrations

Voting rights activists sound alarms over private tool that could lead to cancelling voter registrations


Voting rights groups are urging election officials to reject a new tool championed by some conservatives as a way to root out fraudulent voter registrations – arguing that the private software depends on unreliable information and could be used to improperly disenfranchise legitimate voters.

The leaders of the group behind the new effort, known as EagleAI NETwork, describe the software as “the tool of reckoning across the nation” to help validate, maintain and review election rosters, according to a document provided to the Georgia State Elections Board and obtained by CNN through a public records request.

The document also touts the platform’s ability to allow people “interested in voter roll accuracy and integrity” to do their own reviews of voter registrations after getting a “license and credentials.”

Critics have cast the push as an outgrowth of the deep skepticism around election administration that has taken root among some Republicans following Donald Trump’s 2020 loss. Georgia, a key battleground state Trump lost and where EagleAI NETwork is based, has been ground zero for mass challenges by conservative activists seeking – largely unsuccessfully – to remove tens of thousands of voters from the rolls in recent elections.

“EagleAI is another front on the attacks on elections,” said Andrew Garber, a counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. Garber co-authored a recent analysis that called on states and local governments to reject outright any voter registration challenges generated by the software and to bar officials from using it. The report cast the tool as seemingly part of a “larger plan to move away from responsible voter list maintenance” that could undermine voting rights.

Among Brennan’s concerns: The data that EagleAI NETwork plans to use will not “contain enough identifying details to confidently match individuals,” leading its users to potentially target legitimate voters for removal from the rolls.

In an interview with CNN, EagleAI NETwork’s founder, Dr. John W. “Rick” Richards Jr., called the Brennan criticism “total BS.”

“We are trying to help validate the voter rolls to improve the integrity of that part of the process,” he said.

Richards, a physician, said people trained to use the software will share only “accurate” data about potentially ineligible voters with election officials – after reviewing multiple sources of information, including voter rolls, death records from the Social Security Administration, national change-of-address data and publicly available material, such as newspaper obituaries.

He said the program’s leaders have spoken to “people in 23 states,” including “quite a few” election officials, but no contracts have been signed. He declined to identify the election officials with whom he has had discussions.

Richards also sent CNN a written response to the Brennan report, saying that his effort is not “part of any larger plan” and that final decisions on how to address potentially problematic voter registrations flagged by the software would rest solely with election officials.

The scrutiny of EagleAI NETwork comes after nine Republican-led states withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC – a once-obscure consortium that was founded a little more than a decade ago as a way for states to share government data to update voter registration rolls in an effort to prevent fraud.

David Becker, founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research who helped create ERIC, said its system remains the gold standard for maintaining voter rolls because the states share confidential data, including dates of birth, partial Social Security numbers and driver’s license numbers, to avoid improperly targeting voters for removal.

ERIC has been the target of criticism by Trump and conservative activists, who have cast it as swelling voter registration rolls because member states must send out information encouraging eligible residents to register to vote.

ERIC is funded by the dues paid by members, which now consist of 25 states and Washington, DC, following the spate of recent departures.

EagleAI NETwork’s proponents are promoting the private system as an ERIC alternative.

EagleAI NETwork, in documents summarizing its work, said its data could be used by state and local governments, by organizations undertaking outside election audits and by activists doing their own research into the accuracy of voter rolls.

Richards presented the software in March to the conservative Election Integrity Network, a group organized by attorney Cleta Mitchell, who took part in Trump’s phone call in which he asked Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” enough votes for him to win the state’s electors in 2020.

During the presentation, Mitchell called the software “amazing” and said she wanted to “get a plan together” to share the platform with other groups and states that have withdrawn from ERIC.

“The left will hate this … but we love it,” Mitchell said at the meeting, according to a recording obtained by the government watchdog group Documented and shared with CNN.

Mitchell did not respond to an inquiry from CNN.

CNN attempted to reach elections officials in all nine states that have pulled out from ERIC. Among those that replied, several said they hadn’t been pitched on the EagleAI NETwork product. State or local officials in others – including Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Texas – confirmed they have been pitched on the software, but none confirmed plans to use it.

In Texas, which announced in July it would leave ERIC in October, representatives of the secretary of state’s office watched the company’s presentation to legislative staffers earlier this year, agency spokesperson Alicia Pierce told CNN.

She said the EagleAI NETwork system is “not under active consideration” as an ERIC replacement, though she could not rule out considering it for voter list maintenance in the future.

Likewise, a spokesperson for the secretary of state of West Virginia – which also withdrew from ERIC – said the state had been “made aware” of EagleAI NETwork but has no plans to use it. The spokesperson added that private, third-party sources are not included in what state law permits officials to rely on for voter list maintenance.

Even without government contracts, elections observers say activists could potentially use the software to file mass voter registration challenges ahead of the 2024 election.

“That could cause a tremendous burden on voters – who through no fault of their own, just because they have someone’s common name – might have to go and say, ‘No, I’m still here,’” Becker said. “And it will also gum up the works for election officials. … When do challenges occur? They usually happen close to a big election, so they’ll be potentially busy dealing with these challenges.”

Richards, EagleAI NETwork’s founder, said his group is not connected to Trump or election denialism in any fashion, and he described the people interested in the tool as “concerned citizens” who want to help overburdened and understaffed county officials with voter list maintenance.

“This is just a tool,” he said of the software. “Just like people volunteer to go pick up litter on the side of the road to help out county employees, there are some people who want to help the county employees do this.”

In an email, Richards also defended the quality of the data that EagleAI NETwork uses, such as a national change-of-address database and criminal justice records, which he said ERIC also uses. He said EagleAI NETwork also uses property tax data, which he argued can help verify addresses.

He also argued that private citizens’ involvement with voter list maintenance can help secure elections and save elections officials’ time.

“Just as counties use volunteers to help with elections, taking the burden off the county election administrators,” he wrote, “counties can use volunteers to help with voter list maintenance.”

In EagleAI NETwork’s home state of Georgia, a law enacted by Republicans in the wake of Trump’s 2020 loss there makes it explicit that a single Georgia voter can challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of other voters, prompting mass challenges in the run-up to last year’s midterm elections. The state law also mandated that county election officials set a hearing on challenges within 10 business days.

Nearly 100,000 Georgia voter registrations have been challenged since the law was enacted in 2021, according to Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group founded by Democrat Stacey Abrams that has tallied the cases around the state.

The state remains part of ERIC, and, so far, top election officials have rebuffed early efforts by EagleAI NETwork to make inroads there.

After officials in Columbia County, Georgia, considered a test of EagleAI NETwork, the then-chair of the state election board, William Duffey, wrote in a letter to the county that the use of the software may conflict with state laws, such as prohibitions on voter registration forms and personal information being made public. CNN obtained the letter through a public records request.

In an email to CNN, Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said the state’s “list maintenance procedures are among the best in the nation.”

“EagleAI adds no accuracy to our existing processes,” he said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and NBC News previously reported on EagleAI NETwork’s outreach to activists and election officials.

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