A Run on Democracy

Red toned bank with "American Democracy" written on the building and people toned in blue waiting in a long line outside the bank.

Last week, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) faced a sudden rush of withdrawals. Within a matter of two days, the 16th largest bank in the United States was declared insolvent. The day before the collapse, depositors withdrew $42 billion, one quarter of the bank’s total deposits.

While economists, bankers and depositors will debate the precise reasons for the run on SVB, all bank runs have one thing in common: a loss of confidence in the bank. Banks rarely fail because depositors need access to their money. Rather, a run on a bank is an act of mass panic. People fear that if other depositors take their money out, the bank will fail and thus be unable to return their own funds.

It is not just banks that can fall victim to acute failures of confidence. History shows that governments can suffer the same fate. Right now, we face the risk of a dangerous “run” on our democracy.

For more than a decade, a nonprofit organization called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) has operated an information exchange to help states know when voters have moved, died or otherwise changed the status of their voter registration. From its beginning in 2012, ERIC has been bipartisan and, over time, has grown to include 32 states plus Washington, D.C.

ERIC has always been popular with nonpartisan election officials because it performed a vital information sharing function. It has been popular with Republicans because it has been the tool to purge voters from the rolls and to investigate and prosecute election crimes.

Recently, the Florida Office of Election Crimes and Security — the entity that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) recently set up to investigate election offenses — credited ERIC with identifying a thousand voters who may have cast illegal votes in the state. Alabama’s former secretary of state similarly praised ERIC as a tool used to prosecute people for illegally voting. Iowa’s conservative secretary of state called ERIC “a godsend.”

In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) — a committed advocate for voter purges — used ERIC data to remove 114,000 voters from the rolls. In fact, ERIC was such a useful tool in aiding voter purges that the Heritage Foundation’s “Election Integrity” scorecard gave states points for being a member of ERIC.

Unfortunately, there is no similar playbook for protecting us from mass panics that threaten democracy. 

Democrats have generally looked past these features of ERIC. They support the database because election officials like it and because ERIC supports state voter registration efforts. 

I have always had mixed feelings about ERIC. While list maintenance is important, I have worried that voters might get caught up in a multi-state system where some state actors were not committed to voting rights. I also worry that ERIC has been increasingly relied upon by Republicans to make unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and for new offices to justify investigating citizens for supposed illegal voting. This is exactly what DeSantis did in Florida and what other Republican states are seeking to emulate.

It is difficult to understand why ERIC has suddenly become a target of Republican officials looking to withdraw from the data sharing agreement. ERIC, it seems, is in the middle of a mass panic by Republicans akin to a run on a bank.

ERIC’s problem began last January when a right-wing conspiracy site started peddling lies about the exchange and its operations. The first shoe to drop came a week later when Louisiana withdrew from ERIC. Then, a year later in January 2023, the same conspiracy site wrote another false article, this time claiming that ERIC was part of a dark conspiracy involving George Soros stealing elections.

Alabama withdrew in January 2023 followed by Florida, Missouri and West Virginia in early March. Ohio’s Republican secretary of state has indicated that his state will likely withdraw next. Texas is taking steps to remove the Lone Star State from ERIC as well. It is hard to imagine that more GOP-controlled states won’t withdraw from ERIC. No Republican election official wants to be the last one in ERIC when all the others have left.

news alert Three GOP States Withdraw From Voter Data Organization ERIC

On Monday, March 6, the Missouri, Florida and West Virginia secretaries of state withdrew from the Electronic Registration Information Center.

What is happening to ERIC fits a familiar pattern. A baseless attack on voting or elections gains a foothold in right-wing circles and soon the entire GOP is forced to embrace it. Look at the war on drop boxes: Despite the safety of drop boxes, no Republican state wants to be the last one to make them widely available.

When dealing with mass withdrawals, as we saw with SVB, the federal government knows what to do and how to do it quickly. Learning from the Great Depression and past bank failures, our government has elaborate rules and regulations for handling a run on a bank. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation literally has a playbook for quickly restoring customer confidence and reopening a bank to resume normal operations. 

Unfortunately, there is no similar playbook for protecting us from mass panics that threaten democracy. 

Beyond holding hearings and pursuing some criminal prosecutions, we have done little to prevent another Jan. 6. Republican states continue to enact even more severe voter suppression laws. Republican candidates who campaign on a platform of election subversion draw accolades from the GOP faithful and no condemnation from party elders.

As SVB depositors ran quickly to withdraw their money, Republican states were moving just as fast to remove themselves from ERIC. Yet the response from the federal government could not be starker. 

When our economy is at stake, our government wastes no time to tackle the crisis. Our democracy should be treated no differently. If we don’t treat threats to our democracy with the same urgency as other threats, eventually the system will succumb, and free and fair elections will be lost.

The government doesn’t wait until the next bank failure to write its playbook. We certainly shouldn’t wait for the next crisis in our democracy, either.