|Problem Addressed ||Voting Rights; Election Security |
|Solution ||Created a technology tool that has improved the security and quality of voter registration databases |
|Location ||Washington, DC |
|Impact ||National |
What he did
David Becker has improved the security of the nation’s election systems by leading the development of the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a collaborative data center used by states to better maintain voter registration records and encourage new registrations. He continues to support better election administration and more secure elections as the founding executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR).
Over the last 12 years, David Becker has focused on making our elections more secure through the development of technology tools that address two deep-seated problems confronting election officials – voter registration and disinformation.
In 2009, as a new project director in the Election Initiatives program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, he launched a three-year development effort to help solve what election officials of both national political parties said was the single biggest issue of the election process: maintaining the accuracy of voter registration status and encouraging eligible voters to register. The result was ERIC – the Electronic Registration Information Center – a non-profit corporation set up to give states the capability to identify when voter records are out of date. ERIC enables the comparison of several data sources, making it possible for state election officials to track and update changes in voter status, such as whether eligible voters have moved, died, registered, or somehow been entered more than once into the voter registration rolls.
ERIC went live in 2012 with seven states sharing data to identify and reach out to several millions of unregistered voters. By 2019, ERIC included 24 states plus the District of Columbia and had identified 34 million potentially eligible but unregistered voters. According to Becker, who is a non-voting member of ERIC’s governing board, an estimated 10 million have since registered to vote, many as a result of targeted outreach efforts by the states. Additionally, 13.8 million voter records have been updated.
Three more states joined ERIC in 2019, including Georgia, where a controversy over purging of still-eligible voters from voter rolls tarnished its 2018 midterm elections.
This year, Becker is conducting a small pilot program to test a new technology designed to assist state election officials in combating foreign and domestic disinformation on social media and email. The system is intended as a response tool for neutralizing misleading posts about such topics as voting times, reports of COVID exposures, and long lines at polling centers. However, in keeping with the maxim that the best defense is a good offense, Becker suggested that the system can also be used proactively to disseminate true and accurate information that helps voters better navigate the confusing circumstances of the election.
Learning to Make Systemic Change
Building technology tools to make systemic improvements in the voting process is not something they teach at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, where Becker received his law degree in 1994. It’s not something Becker trained to do but rather, something he discovered needed to happen as his career – and his thinking – evolved.
Following his graduation, Becker started in Los Angeles as an entertainment attorney. After almost four years split between two different firms, he realized that he was not enjoying the work and did not want the potential rewards of partnership in a big entertainment law firm, which he likened to winning a pie eating contest in which the prize is more pie.
Ready to take a chance, he applied for a position that, he says, “was always my dream job” – attorney in the voting rights section of the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Despite graduating from one of the nation’s top law schools and doing well at the two law firms, Becker – ever the pragmatist – says he never expected to get the job because of the strong competition for such positions. “Six months later, of course, my 300ZX was packed with all of my worldly possessions and I was driving across country to move to DC”, he remembered.
Becker spent the next seven years, from 1998 to 2005, seeking to enforce compliance with the Voting Rights Act. In one of his more prominent cases, he served as lead trial counsel against the State of Georgia, which had attempted to redraw its district map to favor White Democratic candidates at the expense of minority voters and minority candidates. After winning in the lower courts, the case went to the Supreme Court, where the Department of Justice (DOJ) lost in a 5-4 decision. Several years later, in 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act and reinstated the protections that Becker had advocated – that, in his words, “the Voting Rights Act does not protect the right of minorities to vote for Democrats or Republicans. It protects their right to vote for the candidates of their choice, whoever they are.”
During his tenure at DOJ, Becker made two discoveries that profoundly impacted his thinking about how to solve election-related problems and that pointed his way forward. First, he saw that the kind of lawsuits that he pursued at the Justice Department might make some headlines and achieve some short-term gain, but at times, they failed to produce lasting, systemic change. In fact, he noted, “Federal lawsuits can sometimes create antagonism that doesn’t need to be there.”
The second discovery is refreshing to hear amidst the maelstrom surrounding this year’s election: “For most of the people who are doing the nuts-and-bolts work of election administration, they want as many eligible voters to vote as possible.”
When pressed on this point, Becker admits he is no Pollyanna. He understands that politicians will almost always do what serves them most, often regardless of the costs. He also emphasizes that it is not the politicians who make the critical, on-the-ground decisions about how to run a smooth election – it is the local election officials who want to do a good job but who often need some guidance and a helping hand.
Walking the walk, talking the talk
David Becker likes doing the hard work needed to protect the integrity of the nation’s elections – his priority is to walk the walk, so to speak. But he’s also very good at talking the talk. In a one-hour conversation in which he discussed his current election work, Becker used the word “integrity” seven times and the words “trust”, “respect”, and “balance” four times each. Not just words, they are characteristics that need to permeate the collaborations he believes are essential for long term change. Becker also offered several insights into the perspective that shapes his approach to making systemic change:
On facing overwhelming odds: “I think we all just do our part.”
On today’s political dynamics: “Too often we spend more time on blame than we spend on fixing.”
On fixing election policy: “I wish we spent more time between elections thinking about elections.”
On building common ground: “I also happen to know that many people on both sides want the same thing. And I’m trying to help them get that, which is a good, smooth, effective election where all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, can participate and have their vote counted.”
With these lessons in mind, Becker left Justice to find someplace where he could put his evolving approach to election issues to the test. After spending some time as a consultant and in a short-lived stint at a progressive organization, he landed at the Pew Charitable Trusts, initially as a project director and then as lead on the Election Initiatives program. His role at Pew gave him the opportunity to begin changing hearts and minds – the hard work that is necessary for the systemic change he sought to implement.
One of the first things he did at Pew was listen. While attending a large conference of election experts – state and local officials, academics, political operatives – he asked a broad range of participants what one thing about elections they would like to fix. Nearly all of them answered “voter registration”. ERIC was formed four years later.
ERIC’s innovation, according to Becker, is not that it enables different database platforms to communicate with one another. “[The] technology is pretty cool, but it’s not really groundbreaking. The real innovation is in the governance model.”
Becker saw that with the increasing divide in national politics, Congress would likely never pass legislation that created a national voter list, and a federal mandate for such a list would likely face stiff resistance from states themselves. Even engaging a reputable independent third party like Pew to run such an effort would face mistrust and opposition. Instead, Becker and his colleagues created ERIC as a non-profit membership organization in which each state that joins signs a membership agreement that obligates them to specific actions. The members govern how ERIC is run – each member-state gets a seat on ERIC’s board of directors.
A key to ERIC’s appeal to both red states and blue states is that ERIC prioritizes both the addition of new voters (a goal usually perceived to be more left-leaning) and the cleaning up of the voter lists, including the removal of people who are no longer alive or eligible to vote (a goal usually perceived to be more right-leaning). Any state that joins ERIC commits to taking both actions – one can’t be done without the other.
Early in 2020, Texas became the 30th state to join ERIC. Now, two-thirds of the nation’s voters have more protection against potential administrative errors that can limit their ability to vote. And so far this year, ERIC has identified 17 million potential new registrants, many of whom are expected to have registered in time to vote in the November election.
An Incidental Entrepreneur
Despite ERIC’s growth and the election program’s other successes, including improving absentee voting for the military and other Americans living overseas, Pew shifted its priorities in 2016 and, in mid-year, began shutting down its Election Initiatives program. ERIC survived, but Becker and members of his team left to find new ways to carry on their work.
Although he never had envisioned himself as an entrepreneur, Becker recalled, “The situation and opportunities presented themselves and I started along with a colleague [the process of setting up CEIR] back in August of 2016.” They launched the Center for Election Innovation and Research (CEIR) the following month, just two months before the presidential election.
Almost immediately, CEIR gained traction as Candidate Trump and then President Trump questioned the integrity of the 2016 election. At one point, he referenced a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts and cited a datapoint that voter registration records contained millions of inaccuracies, implying falsely that voter fraud could result. It was a statement taken out of context from the report that Becker had written to explain and justify the formation of ERIC.
Becker quickly corrected the record – “for a period of time in late January , I was Anderson Cooper’s best friend”, he said – and CEIR was off and running. Between the attention that Trump was bringing to questions of election security and the fact that CEIR had essentially replaced Pew’s Election Initiatives program, Becker was able to grow the funding base for CEIR’s work over a period of several years. Like many entrepreneurs, he initially took no salary. Because CEIR is a not-for-profit, the equity he was building rested on his expertise and his ability to work with people in both political parties rather than stock options.
The 2020 Election
In addition to the new technology platform that CEIR is piloting this election season to help states combat disinformation, the organization is also providing grants to states for election education.
On September 1, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced they were giving CEIR $50 million to provide states with grants so they can educate voters on this year’s election process. CEIR quickly put the necessary infrastructure in place and Becker says that already “about half the states applied, and about half the states that applied have Republican leadership” – a point about bipartisan interest in assisting voters that Becker returns to time and again.
Faced with unprecedented turmoil in the run-up to this year’s presidential election, Becker has one message for everyone working this year’s election, including the state officials who will be receiving grants from CEIR: Their sole focus should be on helping voters navigate the voting process to increase the likelihood that their votes will be counted.
Becker will be able to get that message out himself as the newly appointed Election Law Expert contributing to election coverage for CBS News.
Make Sure Your Vote is Counted
Use the following links to make sure your vote is counted and to help protect everyone’s vote. Please share them.
Can I Vote? This page from the National Association of Secretaries of State connects you to the following:
Resources for military and overseas citizens: This site has all that’s needed for military personnel, students, and business people who are out of the country during the election.
Know your voting rights. Protect the election – learn your basic rights. It is illegal for anyone to try to stop you from voting – learn what to do if someone tries to stop you. Find out what a provisional ballot is, and more.
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David Becker, Zoom interview with George Linzer, Sep 17, 2020 and Sep 24, 2020
Marc Niesse, “Georgia joins multi-state voter registration and cancellation effort”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 22, 2019, https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional-govt–politics/georgia-joins-multi-state-voter-registration-and-cancellation-effort/Z0yLAHuQLqH2KsmTPRh1aJ/, accessed Oct 9, 2020
Henry Redman, “List maintenance or voter purge? Georgia notorious in left-right divide”, Georgia Recorder, Oct 8, 2020, https://georgiarecorder.com/2020/10/08/list-maintenance-or-voter-purge-georgia-notorious-in-left-right-divide/, accessed Oct 20, 2020
ERIC at Work, ERIC, https://ericstates.org/statistics/, accessed Oct 9, 2020
Court Listener, “Georgia v. Ashcroft, 195 F. Supp. 2d 25 (D.D.C. 2002)”, Free Law Project, Apr 5, 2002, https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/2485427/georgia-v-ashcroft/, accessed Oct 12, 2020
Theodore Schleifer, “Mark Zuckerberg’s $300 million donation to protect elections must overcome Facebook’s past”, Vox, Sep 1, 2020, https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/9/1/21417022/mark-zuckerberg-elections-300-million-facebook-center-for-tech-and-civic-life, accessed Oct 12, 2020
The State Bar of California, Attorney Licensee Profile, http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/Licensee/Detail/174429, accessed Oct 12, 2020
Guidestar, CEIR IRS Form 990 2017, downloaded Sep 17, 2020