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Florida’s Use of Unreliable Tool Could Wrongly Remove Numerous Voters from Rolls

EagleAI is a program pushed by election deniers to supposedly root out voter fraud, and now a state election official is trying to promote it statewide.

May 31, 2024

Last week, voting rights groups exposed a troubling development: Florida’s director of elections, Maria Matthews, had instructed local elections officials to investigate roughly 10,000 Florida registered voters based on an unvetted list an activist had emailed her.

Since Donald Trump’s loss in 2020, his supporters have baselessly claimed that ineligible voters are swaying election results. Voting rights groups have been concerned that election deniers would seek to challenge and remove large numbers of voters from the rolls in advance of subsequent elections — and this has indeed happened. How dangerous this strategy ends up being depends in part on how state and local officials respond. Matthews’s directive is the first known example of a state official pressing local officials to act on unreliable, citizen-generated lists.

The list came from Dan Heim. He runs Defend Florida, an election denier group that works with individuals like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone who led efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Heim states he “believes” that the voters on his list have moved and registered elsewhere based on information he gathered using “EagleAI Network.”

EagleAI is a network of activists dedicated to challenging voter registrations. They use a software tool, also called EagleAI, to generate these challenges. The EagleAI network is intensely secretive — almost everything we know about it comes from leaked documents and videos. Though it purports to be nonpartisan, internal planning documents indicate that it is funded by Donors Trust, a dark money conservative group that also funds election denial efforts. EagleAI is being championed by former Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell and rolled out specifically to activists associated with right-wing election denial groups such as her Election Integrity Network that are trying to organize mass challenges to state voter rolls.

EagleAI’s founder makes patently misleading public claims about the accuracy of current voter rolls. Its software tool pulls together numerous sources of varying reliability, some outdated, and enables users to autofill state challenge forms with a few clicks. And the network aims not just to generate mass challenges but also to persuade local officials to vet those challenges using EagleAI as well.

From the leaked emails, it appears that Heim did not even bother to use EagleAI’s autofill feature to submit the sworn, individualized challenges Florida law requires. Instead, he simply attached his list in an email to Ms. Matthews. And she forwarded it to local officials and instructed them to use it to update their voter rolls as they “deem appropriate and helpful.” She did this even though she admittedly had no idea “when the information was exactly compiled and what sources were consulted to derive the list.” Further, Heim and Matthews note that state or local officials have already accepted and “worked” a similar list sent by another activist.

Heim and Matthews — and any local officials who act on her email — are dangerously conflating different administrative processes. Florida, like most states, allows voters to challenge other voters. But recognizing the risk of abusive challenges, Florida has legal safeguards in place. For example, challengers have to sign sworn statements tailored to each voter they challenge and are subject to penalties for lying.

Separately from this challenge process, election officials regularly review vetted governmental sources to identify potential inaccuracies in their voting rolls. They reach out to any registrants flagged for this process and then wait multiple election cycles before removing a voter from the rolls.

In instructing local officials to “take action” using Heim’s unvetted list as they “deem appropriate,” Matthews is encouraging or pushing them to disregard the distinction between these processes and the fact that Heim’s list should not be sufficient to trigger either. And by encouraging officials to disregard established procedures, she raises the risk that voters will be illegally removed before the election, as has happened before in various states. Indeed, any removal of a voter based solely on Heim’s list between now and the election would be illegal under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which prohibits systematic purges within 90 days of a federal election.

Matthews’s email — and any similar efforts to pressure local officials to review multiple duplicative mass challenges of this sort — also makes it harder for local supervisors to do their jobs. Florida election officials, like officials throughout the country, already regularly update voter lists using multiple official sources. Indeed, one official noted that 95 percent of the names flagged in his county had already been removed from the rolls or placed in the removal process based on ordinary list maintenance. And these officials are already under tremendous time-pressure to make sure staff are trained and supplies are prepared to smoothly administer summer primaries and the fall general election. The last thing they need is a directive to investigate thousands of registrations every time some activist emails them a list.

The irony is that the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which is dabbling in reckless list maintenance on the pretext that voter rolls need updating to prevent fraud, recently abandoned its best tool for doing that updating responsibly. Until last year, Florida belonged to the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). In contrast to EagleAI, a mysterious and ideologically driven voter challenge project, ERIC is a bipartisan-led interstate compact for tracking registered voters when they move or otherwise gain or lose eligibility in a particular jurisdiction. At its height, over 30 states belonged to the compact and shared their voter roll and department of motor vehicle data (in hashed and encrypted form to protect residents’ privacy).

ERIC is scrupulously bipartisan, rotating the chair position between Republican-led and Democrat-led states. Until recently, it was widely praised by Republicans and Democrats alike — including DeSantis — as “one of the best fraud-fighting tools that we have,” and as a “godsend” that would “lead[] to cleaner and more accurate voter registration rolls” and “increase voter participation in our elections.” Local Florida officials also found ERIC invaluable.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the 2020 election, election deniers falsely attacked ERIC as a front for liberal interests and persuaded a number of Republican-led states, including Florida, to withdraw from the compact. Since then, the number of referrals Florida receives from other states about potential double-voting is down 93 percent. And the same activists who drove states out of ERIC are advancing various unreliable tools, such as EagleAI, to “replace” ERIC.

Although Matthews is the first statewide official revealed to have instructed local officials to use EagleAI data, Georgia’s Columbia County recently contracted with EagleAI to use its software for unspecified purposes, over the objections of state and national voting rights advocates.

This is no way to run elections in these polarized times rife with misinformation, no way to protect registered voters, and no way to improve public faith in elections. It should be the task of professional election officials to update voter rolls — not vigilantes — and they should do so using reliable official information in a way that safeguards the fundamental right to vote.

Florida voters can check their registration status online or by calling the state hotline 866–308–6739 or their local election office. If they find they’ve been designated “inactive” or are not registered, they can gather their state identification and social security number and reregister online or in-person up to 29 days before the election.