In the flurry of manufactured conspiracies surrounding the 2020 election, the bipartisan voter data partnership known as ERIC initially didn’t attract much attention.

In fact, throughout 2021, a number of far-right groups that otherwise backed election conspiracy theories were still publicly supporting ERIC—an acronym for the “Electronic Registration Information Center”—as an important list maintenance tool.

All that changed in January 2022, when the Gateway Pundit—apparently inspired by a talk radio interview a month earlier—published an article declaring that the “Soros funded ERIC” is “essentially a left wing voter registration drive disguised as voter roll clean up,” since ERIC member states also remind eligible voters to register.

Despite ERIC's role in helping to legitimately promote "election integrity" by keeping voter rolls clean and detecting double voting, the article quickly made ERIC a target for election conspiracy theorists, and Louisiana announced it would be withdrawing from ERIC a week later.

The Gateway Pundit is a fringe blog known for publishing falsehoods. But the anti-ERIC claims were polished, built upon, and brought into the Republican mainstream by a growing network of well-funded election conspiracists.

As NPR reported, based on material provided by Documented, former Trump attorney Cleta Mitchell played a central role: Mitchell elevated anti-ERIC researchers like Heather Honey to the national stage, organized an anti-ERIC briefing in June 2022 for Secretaries of State in Washington, D.C., and her “Election Integrity Network” of state election denier coalitions drove the anti-ERIC campaign forward in key states. Mitchell is also on the board of the Bradley Foundation, which the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer described as “the big money behind the big lie” and which funded many of the groups involved in these efforts.

This is a story of how well-funded MAGA institutions took aim at a successful bipartisan “election integrity” tool, both nationally and in states like North Carolina and Florida.

Cleta Mitchell Puts Institutional Weight Behind anti-ERIC Push

The January 2022 Gateway Pundit article smearing ERIC was filled with "line after line of inaccurate or misleading information," as VoteBeat reported, and at the time, it seemed like these baseless attacks may have stayed on the relative fringes. Throughout 2022, top Republican election officials in states like Alabama and Ohio continued to tout ERIC as a vital tool for cleaning voter rolls and identifying fraud.

But Cleta Mitchell and her political network drove the anti-ERIC campaign forward, eventually leading to a red state exodus from the group the following year.

Beginning in April of 2022, Patrice Johnson, a Michigan activist who would go on to lead Mitchell's "Election Integrity Network" coalition in the state, began tying conspiracies about ERIC to earlier conspiracies about “Zuckerbucks” and President Biden’s voting access executive order.

According to Johnson, ERIC, the executive order, and "Zuckerbucks" were all part of the same "leftist" plot to encourage eligible voters to register and cast ballots. "ERIC appears to be the tip of the spear,” she wrote.

Cleta Mitchell hosted Johnson on her podcast the following month, where Johnson described her research and said ERIC “is supposed to be cleaning the voter rolls. But it's not. It is a covert method of registering targeted voters.”

Mitchell agreed, declaring that “ERIC is a very insidious organization,” and added, “I’m just thrilled that you are working on ERIC. We want more citizens to say to their legislators, ‘do not continue your membership.' Withdraw their membership…immediately.” Mitchell also praised Louisiana’s Secretary of State for pulling his state out of ERIC, calling him a “friend” whom she had just spoken with that morning.

Neither Johnson nor Mitchell alleged that ERIC facilitated voter fraud—their complaint was effectively that states participating in ERIC might encourage lawful voters to participate in democracy.

Mitchell Organized June 2022 Anti-ERIC Meeting for SOS

With Mitchell's backing, a self-described "open-source investigator" named Heather Honey then added a new layer to the ERIC conspiracy.

The Pennsylvania-based Honey had worked on Arizona’s sham election audit, and connected with Mitchell in early 2022 as she began setting up Election Integrity Network coalitions around the country.

On June 17, 2022, Mitchell organized a Washington D.C. event for Secretaries of State described as a “gathering on ERIC,” according to records obtained by Documented. The meeting was held at the Capitol Hill headquarters of the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), which launched the Election Integrity Network and where Mitchell serves as a senior fellow. (Mitchell also records her podcast from CPI headquarters.)

The event largely centered around a 29-page report from Honey and her firm, Verity Vote, that called ERIC a “threat to election integrity.”

Honey’s report was the first to raise conspiratorial claims about voter data privacy, and repeated critiques about ERIC encouraging more people to participate in democracy.

“The primary effect of ERIC is to grow the voter rolls by converting eligible-but-unregistered (EBU) persons into registered voters,” the report said.

The Secretaries of State from Louisiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, and Missouri reportedly attended the June 2022 meeting. CPI paid for travel and lodging for at least some secretary of state officials.

Another attendee at the Washington, D.C. meeting was Jim Womack, who leads the Election Integrity Network coalition in North Carolina—the North Carolina Election Integrity Team, or “NCEIT”— and who has also appeared on Mitchell’s podcast.

ERIC Targeted in North Carolina

In North Carolina, the anti-ERIC campaign was set into motion following Mitchell’s Washington D.C. convening.

A month earlier, North Carolina lawmakers included a provision in the state budget authorizing the state board of elections to join ERIC for one year. At the time, the provision was considered uncontroversial and the budget passed on a bipartisan basis.

But after returning from the Washington D.C. event with Honey’s report, NCEIT’s Womack promptly sent a letter to Republican state lawmakers—cc’ing Cleta Mitchell—urging them to create hurdles for the state board of elections to engage with ERIC.

In the letter, Womack wrote:

Two weeks ago, I met with Cleta Mitchell, five Secretaries of State (LA, WV, AL, FL, and MO), and reps from several nationally acclaimed election integrity agencies in Washington, D.C. All of us were genuinely concerned with the risks associated with ERIC. Several states are seriously considering withdrawal from ERIC (or limiting their commitments to ERIC) because of the organization's staffing and its ties to corrupt individuals and agencies. Yet, here we are in NC, sending money to an organization known for adding more people to state voter rolls and sharing our voter data with organizations funded by Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros.

Womack’s letter echoed Honey’s claims that ERIC shares voter data with third-party groups, and asserted that participating in ERIC would “not meaningfully change anything other than to guarantee that more voters will be added to our voter rolls—which are already woefully bloated with ineligible or inaccurate records.”

The next month, Womack’s NCEIT published an anti-ERIC "fact sheet" previewing the group’s opposition to ERIC.

Honey and Womack then met with several North Carolina state senators and shared the fact sheet, according to materials obtained by Documented. After the meeting, those lawmakers sent a letter to the state board of elections directing it to narrowly construe the authorization to engage with ERIC.

The lawmakers forwarded the letter to Womack, and it was posted online with a declaration of victory.

That same month, September 2022, Honey appeared on Mitchell’s podcast to talk about ERIC, and described how it is “inflating the rolls with people who don’t want to be registered.” Mitchell repeated her call for states to withdraw from ERIC, saying:

“We need people to tell their legislatures, and tell their state election offices, to stop sending the data–to just withdraw from ERIC. I just hope that more and more states will start doing what the Secretary of State of Louisiana did which is, he said ‘we’re getting out of ERIC. We’re not gonna do this anymore.’”

Following the 2022 election, in December 2022, Womack and other NCEIT leaders gave a presentation to the North Carolina House Speaker’s office. The accompanying slideshow, obtained by Documented, includes a section titled “Election Integrity General Recommendations from CPI’s Cleta Mitchell,” one of which is a call to “Withdraw NC from ERIC and prohibit any NC taxpayer funds from being used or spent in membership in ERIC.”

In March 2023, Honey and Womack again met with North Carolina legislators about ERIC, and a bill was introduced to repeal the ERIC authorization, as was a budget provision that would have a similar effect.

NCEIT added these two measures to its list of legislative priorities, and the ERIC ban passed as part of the North Carolina budget in May 2023.

Florida EIN Coalition Pressed State to Cut ERIC Ties

The North Carolina campaign operated in parallel to similar efforts in other states.

The Election Integrity Network coalition in Florida, the “Florida Fair Elections Coalition,” also pressured the state to pull out of ERIC, with similar support from Heather Honey and Cleta Mitchell.

Among other things, Honey gave a briefing about ERIC to the Florida coalition in July 2022, and helped the coalition develop anti-ERIC advocacy materials in early 2023. The head of the Michigan coalition, Patrice Johnson, also gave an anti-ERIC presentation in June of 2022.

In early 2023, as the anti-ERIC efforts began gaining momentum, the Florida coalition directed more energy towards pressuring state officials to remove Florida from the program.

A February 9, 2023 meeting of the Florida group largely focused on ERIC, and the coalition began to discuss a grassroots advocacy campaign. Notes from the meeting described “[Three] Ways to attack ERIC," which included "Legislatively, Align with Heather [Honey] & Patrice [Johnson], Grassroots.”

The following week, the coalition urged activists and organizations to demand lawmakers remove the state from ERIC, and shared a template advocacy letter which asked that “legislators vote to suspend and terminate the contract with ERIC.” Notes from the meeting also described plans to lobby Secretary of State Cord Byrd on the issue: “If we make a good case, and bring Cord up to speed, Cabinet is lining up experts on ERIC to come and speak to Cord.”

Byrd has a long relationship with Mitchell. In March 2022, when he was still a lawmaker, Byrd spoke at a Florida summit organized by Mitchell, who praised him as an “election integrity” advocate. Byrd was also part of a February 2023 panel with Mitchell and one of her Election Integrity Network colleagues at a CPI conference.

Byrd joined the Florida coalition’s meeting on February 23, 2023, approximately one week after attending a controversial Republican secretaries of state convening organized by the Heritage Foundation. The convening, first revealed by Documented and The Guardian, included a session on ERIC.

According to detailed notes that the Florida coalition distributed after the February 23 meeting, Byrd was asked about ERIC, where he acknowledged its value, but made sure to emphasize that “We are using ERIC for list maintenance, not bloating the voter rolls.”

Byrd said that ERIC is the "only and best game in town but we are constantly evaluating the benefit we have is worth the cost putting in."

Elsewhere in the meeting, Byrd expressed his view that Florida Supervisors of Elections (SOE) should not be involved in encouraging voter participation, saying the “Notion that it is up to election officials to drive turnout is not something I philosophically agree with.”

At the next meeting of the Florida coalition, on March 2, 2023, the coalition's co-leader, Elizabeth Butler, described how the group was ramping up its anti-ERIC advocacy and had developed a “top 10 reasons why Florida should get out of ERIC” document.

“Heather Honey helped us a lot in developing this,” Butler said, according to notes from the meeting. Butler also stated that “Cleta [Mitchell] is also talking about putting together a call for legislators.”

“The strategy for this call to action is to start talking with legislators, the SOS, and Governor DeSantis,” Butler said, according to the notes.

The following week, Florida—along with Missouri and West Virginia— announced it would be leaving ERIC. At the Florida coalition’s next meeting, the group’s leaders announced “BIG NEWS: SOS Cord Byrd sent out press release that Florida has been removed from ERIC!!!“

“We gave them the muscle of the citizens behind them to make the decision much easier,” according to the notes.

Anti-ERIC Campaign Is Anti-Voter

In many ways, the anti-ERIC campaign is a product of election conspiracy theories shifting away from alleged fraud at the ballot box and increasingly focusing on lawful efforts to bring more voters into the political process.

ERIC plays a vital role in ensuring the accuracy of voter rolls and in detecting double voting. However, it got pulled into the flurry of conspiracy theories that festered after the 2020 election because ERIC member states must also remind eligible voters how to register—leading to the baseless critique that it functions as “a left wing voter registration drive.”

As Cleta Mitchell and her allies have stated clearly, there is a throughline from conspiracies about ERIC, to conspiracies about “Zuckerbucks,” to conspiracies about Biden’s voting access executive order. The underlying complaint is that eligible voters are being encouraged to register and to participate in our democracy.

In this way, the anti-ERIC advocacy connects back to a long sordid history of voter suppression. Although election deniers talk about preventing “voter fraud,” their concern really seems to be more with “voting.”