New Right-Wing Conspiracies Threaten to Further Starve Local Election Systems

Conservatives are sowing fears about outside funding of elections, cutting out nonprofits that help prop up poorly-funded voting systems and limiting voter outreach.

Spenser Mestel   |    March 31, 2022

(GPA Photo Archive/Flickr)

Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin supreme court justice who said state election officials “stole our votes” days after Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential race, was granted wide latitude by Republicans to investigate voter fraud last year: a budget of $676,000, subpoena power, and months to pursue leads. But the report on the 2020 election that he presented to state lawmakers earlier this month was the usual hodgepodge of Trumpian recommendations, including decertifying the presidential results and outright eliminating the state’s election commission.   

Buried in the report was one proposal that has gone largely unnoticed, but is rapidly gaining steam as a new conservative cause celebre. Gableman called on Wisconsin to exit the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which is a national organization that assists states in maintaining accurate voter rolls. 

Thirty states and the District of Columbia are part of ERIC, from Democratic Illinois to Republican Texas, but this bipartisan organization exploded on the radar for “Stop-the-Steal” activists after the far-right website Gateway Pundit published stories attacking it in January. The website falsely tied ERIC to George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who supports an array of progressive causes, calling it a “left wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up,” even though ERIC is governed and financially supported by its member states. 

The articles quickly reverberated on the right. Barely a week later, a Republican lawmaker who is running for secretary state in Alabama said his first act in office would be to withdraw Alabama from ERIC, name-dropping George Soros. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin actually pulled the plug on ERIC over the same period. His office told Votebeat this was not due to The Gateway Pundit’s article but offered no other source for their newfound concerns. 

“Extreme elected officials and operatives pushing disinformation about ERIC are not actually interested in election security and integrity,” Jena Griswold, the Democratic secretary of state of Colorado, one of the original states that founded ERIC in 2012, told Bolts. “This is about chipping away at voter confidence, passing voter suppression laws, and tilting the outcome of future elections.”

Conspiracy theories are easy to weave and hard to untangle, and ever since the presidential race they are being used to raise doubts about conflicts of interest in election administration. 

Conservatives have also seized on grants made by the nonprofit organization Center for Tech and Civil Life (CTCL) to nearly 2,500  jurisdictions during the 2020 elections to help them run elections. CTCL received a donation of at least $350 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The right has since dubbed these grants “Zuckerbucks” and implied they played a sinister role, and over the past year, a series of Republican-run states including Arizona, Kentucky, and South Dakota have banned private grants to election offices to block a repeat. 

Wisconsin has yet to adopt such a ban, but Gableman also recommended that the state follow suit. His report called such grants “election bribery” (multiple lawsuits making this same case have failed), and he explicitly faulted Democratic cities for using the money to boost turnout among Black voters.

The attacks on ERIC reflect a new and broader target in the right’s war on election administration. By fanning paranoia around funding streams, they are cutting off local election offices from the non-profits they are often forced to rely on—including those, like ERIC, that are in truth funded by taxpayers through member states. And without offering more public funding instead, this threatens the offices’ capacity to conduct voter outreach. 

These emerging efforts take advantage of an unfortunate fact about American elections: The local and state offices that actually run our democratic machinery are massively underfunded and have come to rely on outside assistance. This offers countless opportunities for conspiracists to fabricate conflicts of interests, like the spurious thread between George Soros and ERIC, and to sow distrust in elections that can suppress democratic activity .  

“U.S. elections are chronically and, in some cases, hazardously underfunded,” said Michael Thorning, Associate Director of Governance for the Bipartisan Policy Center. The problem is now getting worse as a paper shortage is raising costs for many jurisdictions.,

“Ideally, predictable and consistent federal support for elections best practices should fill the space where private funding has popped up,” Thorning added.

But that assistance is unlikely to materialize. There’s no regular, systematized federal funding of elections. In 2020, Congress allocated more than $800 million for election administration, which was one fifth of what House Democrats had asked for. This year Congress only allocated $75 million to fund local offices, a reduction from past years that has alarmed voting rights advocates. The U.S. House had originally proposed $500 million. 

Habitually strapped for cash, some officials can’t afford “Vote Here” signs or privacy booths, let alone most resource-intensive outreach. Registrations especially are a massive undertaking. Canvassers take about an hour to register five people, and at least 11 percent of U.S. citizens, about 26 million people, aren’t registered. And then, those entries need to be updated to account for moves, deaths, and name changes.

Outside groups like ERIC and CTCL have long filled the gap in resources needed to run elections. Conservatives who helped keep public funding for elections meager are now pointing to assistance from such nonprofits as evidence of wrongdoing.

Since its founding in 1990, Rock the Vote has registered over 14 million people. Now it’s become a target of the Amistad Project, an “election integrity watchdog” founded by Phill Kline, a former attorney general of Kansas.  In a recent report titled “Bought and Sold for Big Tech Gold,”  Kline faults “blue state election officials” for entering agreements with organizations like Rock the Vote, which he alleges created “new digital vulnerabilities” by opening the door for groups to access poll books, alter records, and create fictitious voters. In the report, Kline provides no evidence for this accusation, nor did he respond to multiple requests for comment. 

At least in Wisconsin, Rock the Vote never had the ability to change entries, and registrations sent through its website go directly to a state’s database but are verified like any other. Michigan’s data-sharing agreement with Rock the Vote explicitly required election officials to approve any submitted registrations. Yet, the Amistad Project’s unfounded allegations further the same narrative that outside assistance is inherently suspect. 

Such fear mongering is now being used to justify new laws that restrict partnerships between election administrators and outside assistance. Kansas, Florida, and Ohio have passed laws since 2020 that threaten volunteers who engage in registration drives with hefty criminal charges if they make errors, intimidating organizations and possibly scaring organizers away from conducting such drives. Ohio’s statute also prohibits public officials from partnering with any non-governmental organizations, a ban that is so broad that it potentially threatens existing state-run programs that help voters register, understand the voting process, get to the polls, and correct their ballots. 

The district attorney of Douglas County, Kansas, has already said she would not prosecute such cases. “This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections,” Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, told the Kansas Reflector. Other DAs in the country have engaged in aggressive prosecution in cases of voter error.

Lawmakers behind some of these bans say they were never meant to suppress activities like voter registration drives. But Alderman Chris Wery of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city that received a CTCL grants in 2020, has been more open about his intentions. 

“We should not have outreach at all,” Wery said at a recent public meeting. He attacked Green Bay’s “voter navigators,” workers who in 2020 fielded questions about how to vote during the pandemic.“We shouldn’t be targeting anyone at all because that leaves room for people saying, ‘Well, why are you reaching out to them and not them?’” In his report, Gableman took issue with Green Bay, among other cities in Wisconsin, for using the CTCL grant it received in 2020 to reach out to Black residents.

Green Bay’s city council, which approved the grant at the time, debated some of Wery’s proposals earlier in March. Like much of Wisconsin, Green Bay is holding municipal elections next week, with many council seats on the ballot, and the aftermath of Trump’s claims rocking the campaign. Wery’s own seat is not up this year.

Rachel Rodriguez, who works as an elections management specialist in the county clerk’s office of Wisconsin’s Dane County (Madison), rejects Wary and Gableman’s framing that registering voters is unfair because it may benefit a certain party. “If doing voter outreach is partisan,” she says, “not doing voter outreach is also partisan.”

Depriving local offices of assistance from non-profits poses risks for election administration. It may reduce registration rates and affect turnout by eliminating activities that help drive voters to the polls, all during a time when the GOP is also passing laws to restrict registration and ballot access more directly in the name of “election integrity.”

Despite claiming that outside funding is such a corruptive force in Wisconsin, Michael Gableman didn’t take issue with it while serving on the state supreme court. 

In 2015, Gableman authored a ruling that grabbed national headlines shutting down an investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by Republican Governor Scott Walker. The decision allowed politicians to solicit unlimited, anonymous, and untraceable spending by “independent” political organizations as long as they don’t explicitly advocate for or against a specific candidate.

Justice Neil Patrick Crooks, one of two judges who dissented in the case, warned that opening the floodgates to dark money would “profoundly affect the integrity of our electoral process.” Without politicians disclosing the source of their money, how could the public even identify potential conflicts of interests? 

Seven years later, Gableman is now arguing that funding for elections that is openly disclosed and available to any jurisdiction requests it amounts to a vast left-wing attack on democracy. Wisconsin lawmakers have yet to adopt Gableman’s recommendations, and Democratic Governor Tony Evers, who is up for re-election this year, still enjoys veto power. But a week after Gableman shared his report with Wisconsin lawmakers, his contract as a counsel for GOP legislators was renewed. “I will be back,” Gableman said when presenting his report.