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A new group takes aim at voter rolls — but critics say their methodology is flawed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There is still no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, but many conservative voters still believe that the election of Joe Biden was fraudulent. A new group called the Voter Reference Foundation, better known as VoteRef, is now providing resources for people in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states that they say would help them investigate irregularities in state voter rolls. The foundation is backed by a wealthy conservative billionaire. But critics point out that the foundation's methodology is flawed and could lead to unwarranted harassment of voters.

Reporter Megan O'Matz is a writer for ProPublica and joins us now. Welcome.

MEGAN O'MATZ: Thank you. Thank you for having me on the program.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. Now, VoteRef calls itself, quote, "the beginning of a new era of American election transparency." Can you just explain what information is VoteRef actually making available to people here?

O'MATZ: Well, it is actually posting the voter rolls for now 19 states online wholesale. So at least for now, in these 19 states, you can go and look up someone's name, their date of birth in most cases, their address, their party registration. The voter rolls, they are public information. I want to make that very clear. They are mostly given to political parties and candidates so they can use them to get their message out to voters. But this group has taken it to somewhat of a new level in putting the rolls wholesale online for free for everybody to peruse.

CHANG: Right. Because even though this kind of information is technically public, you have to formally request it, it can take a while. And what VoteRef does is make this information readily accessible, right?

O'MATZ: Exactly.

CHANG: OK. Now what inconsistencies does VoteRef say that they have found in these published voter rolls?

O'MATZ: Well, what they have done is they have taken the number of ballots for the 2020 election, and then they looked at the number of voters credited with voting in that election. And theoretically, it makes sense that they should match. But what VoteRef has done is that they have pooled these voter histories months and sometimes many months after the election.

And of course, in the normal course of our lives, people move, people die, some people are convicted of felonies. But yet VoteRef is characterizing these differences as discrepancies. And so they are going about insinuating or hinting that the election was flawed in that way.

CHANG: Well, this organization does try to give this appearance of being a wide grassroots effort. Tell us, where's the money for this foundation coming from?

O'MATZ: So we trace the funding for VoteRef to the Restoration PAC. The primary funder for many years is a billionaire named Richard Uihlein. You might know of the Uihlein corporation from - it's a packaging supply company based in Wisconsin. You can see their label on a lot of corrugated boxes and things.

So we saw in May 2021 that Richard Uihlein gave $1.5 million to the Restoration PAC. And within weeks, money started going to a media network that then did the data analysis and asked the secretaries of state offices for all this data, which we mentioned, again, is costly.

CHANG: OK. Can you just talk about the wider concern here? When people are having their information openly published on the internet without their consent, what is at stake?

O'MATZ: Some of our readers have written to me and said, I'm nervous, you know, there's some guy that's been stalking me. Or people have failed marriages that may have been violent and they are domestic abuse victims. So we do have serious concerns about that.

Also the elections officials have a lot of worries about intimidation and harassment of voters because just think about this - let's say if you notice that your neighbor had a sign in his yard for Donald Trump, but then you look up your neighbor and you find that that person didn't vote in 2020. I mean, are there going to be some disagreements or some arguments? Is that neighbor going to be put on the spot?

Also I spoke with the secretary of state in Connecticut, and she told me that she believes there will never be another uncontested presidential election in this country again. She's very fearful about that because of efforts like this that seem to further foster mistrust in our election system.

CHANG: That is Megan O'Matz, reporter at ProPublica. Thank you very much for your reporting.

O'MATZ: You're welcome. Thank you for having me on the program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.