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A New Antidemocracy Tool

EagleAI is the latest effort by election deniers to use the upkeep of voter rolls as a vehicle to disenfranchise voters and spread disinformation.

Some of the nation’s preeminent election deniers have launched EagleAI NETwork, a new project that could undermine voting rights and elections. Its key supporters include Georgia serial voter registration challenger Jason Frazier and former President Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell — best known for her participation in Trump’s phone call asking Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” him 11,780 votes. If EagleAI replaces existing election systems, it may be used to smear impartial election administration, disenfranchise voters, and set the stage for overturning unfavorable election results. It’s another link in the antidemocracy chain that those unhappy with election outcomes are building.

Don’t let the “AI” in the name fool you. There’s nothing intelligent about EagleAI, which appears to be no more than a system that performs data matches based on a database of public voter data amassed by a web scraper. Its own proponents describe it as “Excel on steroids.”

EagleAI takes from sources including the National Change of Address database, criminal justice records, and tax property data to create massive lists of voters. From there, it highlights names of potentially ineligible voters using criteria that are at best unreliable and at worst irrelevant, such as matching names on voter lists with change-of-address forms or felony convictions, or even just registration at nursing homes (baselessly implying that nursing home residents are somehow not competent to vote). Amateur investigators take the highlighted names and look for purported evidence of voter ineligibility, like a social media posting from out of state. They can then use EagleAI to auto-prepare challenge forms in a couple of clicks. It’s no more than a clearinghouse for election deniers to compile mass challenges.

The problems with mass voter challenges

Election officials across the country update their voter rolls and remove ineligible voters as a routine part of their jobs — in fact, they’re required to do so by federal law. Most states also allow private citizens to challenge registrants on or before Election Day. Ideally, these challenges should only be filed by those with personal knowledge of a change in a voter’s eligibility, such as the neighbor of a registered voter who has since moved. Challenges by private citizens add almost no value over the proven technology used by election administrators. Mostly they just disrupt election administration and potentially disenfranchise voters.

The battleground state of Georgia has been the epicenter of private challenges since the 2020 election, with one group challenging 364,000 voters before the January 2021 Senate runoffs. In 2021, Georgia expanded its already permissive challenger laws, and in 2022, a small group of activists contested over 90,000 registrations. County boards rejected almost all these challenges.

That was hardly a surprise because, as we’ve documented, mass challenges are consistently based on unreliable data. Specifically, inconsistencies in voter data can more often be explained by benign reasons rather than voter ineligibility. To name a few, voters may want their mail forwarded but remain eligible to vote at their registered address, people may accidentally indicate an entire household moved when some members remained, public property records may be out of date, and people often share names. Thus, private challenges based on these data sets are more likely to sweep in eligible voters than to identify ineligible voters.

At best, mass private challenges are redundant. Federal law requires states and localities to maintain accurate voter rolls while placing limitations on when they may remove voters. When private challengers step in, they often ignore these limitations and pressure local boards to do the same.

At worst, even when rejected, mass challenges have dangerous downstream effects. Local boards must dedicate their limited resources to investigating them and may send out notices to eligible voters, which may intimidate them out of voting. Challenges also fuel election misinformation by creating the false appearance of many questionable registrations.

The same activists responsible for pushing these mass challenges in Georgia and elsewhere are now doubling down on their flawed scheme with EagleAI.

Undermining responsible election administration

The creation of EagleAI seems to be part of a larger plan to move away from responsible voter list maintenance. For over a decade, officials in many states have used the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to maintain accurate voter rolls and encourage voter registration; at its height, 33 states plus Washington, DC, participated. Securely combining confidential DMV and voter registration information from member states, along with federal social security and postal service databases, ERIC uses sophisticated, AI-assisted matching technology to identify voters who have moved or died. By using confidential data, it creates far fewer false matches than other methods and produces a better list of potentially eligible voters for states to contact. ERIC has drawn widespread praise from both Republican and Democratic election officials. It’s a triumph of professional and competent election administration.

Starting in 2022, right-wing election deniers, with Mitchell’s help, led a relentless disinformation campaign pressuring states to exit the compact. Nine Republican-run states have left, including many that previously trumpeted ERIC as a “godsend” for list accuracy and fraud prevention.

While officials abandoned their best tool to maintain accurate rolls, EagleAI’s founders were working behind the scenes to pitch it as a replacement for ERIC. Many officials have rejected EagleAI’s approaches. But some county officials in states including Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Texas are reportedly discussing contracting with it. The problem is imminent enough that at least one state official, former Georgia State Board of Elections Chair William Duffey, sent a letter to one county board discouraging it from using EagleAI and noting it may violate privacy laws.

EagleAI is not only an unacceptable substitute for ERIC — it appears to be an effort to empower election-denying ideologues by replacing a reliable list maintenance system with a patchwork of sloppy mass challenges.

A new election denial long con

The movement to pull out of ERIC and promote vigilante alternatives like EagleAI poses several dangers.

First, as explained above, EagleAI appears to rely on publicly available data, which doesn’t contain enough identifying details to confidently match individuals. ERIC solves this problem by securely using confidential data that identifies matches more precisely. EagleAI also mirrors the Georgia challengers’ flawed approach of relying on problematic evidence. As Georgia Elections Director Blake Evans told reporters, “EagleAI data offers zero additional value to Georgia’s existing list maintenance procedures. . . . EagleAI presentations . . . are confused and seem to steer counties towards improper list maintenance activities.”

Second, if it replaces ERIC, EagleAI would transfer much of the responsibility for maintaining accurate voter rolls from professional officials to private activists. This is an especially risky prospect given that EagleAI lacks ERIC’s voter protections. Instead of correcting for false positives using proven methods, EagleAI depends on users to conduct their own research on flagged names. Yet we know challengers often submit unverified data. Take Gwinnett County, Georgia. Its elections personnel examined a list of 37,000 challenged names and didn’t find a single ineligible voter. EagleAI will force resource-strapped local boards to spend hundreds of precious hours investigating speculation.

Third, EagleAI’s backers also propose that local governments use it to resolve private challenges, which would lead to disastrous registration purges. This scheme is right out of the election denial playbook. Since there’s no evidence that illegal voting is a widespread problem, conspiracy theorists create the facade of a problem and then demand that governments use their solution, never mind the side effects of disenfranchisement and intimidation. They want to be prosecutor and jury.

Purges aren’t the only concern in this scenario. EagleAI is another mechanism for drumming up bogus evidence that election deniers can use as “proof” for the lie that fraud mars our elections. Just by taking EagleAI seriously, local officials could give it a veneer of legitimacy that helps disinformation gain traction in the future.

The lack of evidence of widespread fraud in our elections has always been an insurmountable obstacle for election deniers. Since they cannot find any real evidence — despite trying very hard — they turn to smoke and mirrors. Director Evans summed up the problem: “EagleAI draws inaccurate conclusions and then presents them as if they are evidence of wrongdoing.”

EagleAI’s role as a piece of the right-wing strategy to undermine elections and Americans’ confidence in them is further evidenced by its supporters. Since the 2020 election, Mitchell has led efforts to make it harder to vote, funneled money to Arizona’s deeply flawed postelection audit, and trained a “voluntary army of citizens” to pressure election officials and surveil polling places. Now Mitchell is providing legal, fundraising, and strategic assistance to EagleAI. The activist network she runs has been staffing its in-state operations and conducting outreach to election officials. Fulton County Board of Elections nominee Jason Frazier personally and baselessly challenged thousands of voters last year, leading the Fulton County Commission to reject his nomination. He is now consulting on EagleAI’s platform design.

States and localities should reject EagleAI wholesale. They should deny any challenges it generates. But they should do more than that to prevent EagleAI and the election denial movement from taking hold. State officials should bar local officials from using EagleAI and states that have left ERIC should rejoin. States should tighten private challenger laws to require one-by-one challenges based on personal knowledge and to penalize frivolous challenges.

Finally, all public officials must forcefully denounce the election denial that gives rise to schemes like EagleAI. It’s time to let professional election administrators get back to doing their jobs.