Florida is using a fraud-hunting tool used by the right to look for voters to remove from the rolls

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida wants local elections officials to use data collected by far-right activists, some of whom falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen, to potentially remove people from the state’s voter rolls, according to emails obtained by NBC News.

The network of activists has been collecting voter data in 24 states, and on May 3, one of them emailed the Florida-specific information to a top state election official. It included the names of roughly 10,000 voters from across the state the group insists should be examined for potential removal from the voter rolls, a process commonly referred to as list maintenance.

The state’s chief elections official then forwarded that information to county election supervisors and asked them to “take action.”

“I apologize for the delay in forwarding the following email and attachment from a concerned citizen regarding potential interstate registered voters,” Maria Matthews, the director of the Florida Division of Elections, wrote in a May 15 email, two weeks after she was originally sent the 10,000 names.

Matthews acknowledged it was unclear how the list of names was compiled or where the data came from. 

“I do not know when the information was exactly compiled and what all sources were consulted to derive this list,” she wrote. 

The “concerned citizen” who sent the May 3 email was Dan Heim, a longtime Florida-based activist who has made unfounded voter fraud claims across the state. He told Matthews in the email that he worked with a group that helped create a program called EagleAI (pronounced “Eagle Eye”), a database loaded with voter rolls and other records that promise to quickly churn through the data and find registrations that may be suspect based on other sources.  

It was founded by a retired physician, Dr. John W. “Rick” Richards Jr., and rolled out last year to a group of conservative election activists in the Election Integrity Network. That group was founded by former Trump election lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who was a central figure in efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Last year, a special Georgia grand jury unanimously recommended that she be indicted for her role in trying to overturn the 2020 election in that state. (She has not been indicted in the case.)

“The left will hate this,” Mitchell said during an EagleAI demonstration to the Election Integrity Network last year. “They will hate it. But we love it.”

That comment was made in videos of program demonstrations obtained last year by NBC News. Conservative activists in attendance were guided to personally evaluate voter registrations one by one, looking up home addresses on Google Maps to see if the address looked like a home, searching for obituaries online and preparing lists of questionable registrations to report to local officials.

The use of EagleAI data to cull voter rolls has raised concern with All Voting is Local Action, a multistate voting rights group.

In a letter sent Friday morning and first obtained by NBC News, the group is asking Florida Secretary of State Cord Byrd to tell local elections officials to “disregard” the email with the 10,000 voter names, to encourage counties to “not to perform list maintenance based on unreliable and unreviewed data, including from EagleAI and similar databases,” and to not use a state elections investigation office started by Gov. Ron DeSantis to make any communication that could be perceived as “improper or threatening.”

“The list was provided with no information about the source of data or methodology used to identify these voters,” read the letter, which was signed by a collection of voting rights groups. “It is a criminal offense in Florida to make frivolous challenges, which are subject to misdemeanor penalties for each voter challenged.” 

The letter was also signed by the NAACP, Common Cause Florida, the Legal Defense Fund and the Advancement Project. 

It alleges that the email to Matthews could also violate state law that says someone challenging a voter’s eligibility must live in the same county as the voter. In that case, Heim could not challenge 10,000 voters unless he lived in the same county with each of them.

Brad Ashwell, Florida state director for All Voting is Local Action, told NBC News that allowing thousands of names to be challenged all at once could have the effect of bogging down elections officials chasing false claims of potential voter fraud.

“It is a voter suppression technique and can bog down the machinery of elections at critical points,” he said. “EagleAI has been on our eye for a while, and it’s frankly disturbing when we saw this email. Not only because the state is sending this list of voters to supervisors, but basically subverting state law on a couple fronts.”

His group also has a presence in the seven key swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but he says Florida is the first state to have this much movement trying to get EagleAI data inserted into the list maintenance process.

Wesley Wilcox, supervisor of elections in Marion County, Florida, said that 95% of the records identified in his county were records that his office has already identified for voter roll maintenance — registrations that have already been removed or are scheduled for removal in accordance with the law.

The records had also been mislabeled as “Martin County.”

“If I’m being held to a 100% accuracy rate, I believe I should be able to expect the same accuracy,” he added.

Christina White, the supervisor of elections in Miami-Dade County, said the list she received from the state contained just one voter in her county who was potentially registered in another state as well.

“As due diligence, and per our standard operating procedures, we reached out to the other jurisdiction to determine if this is the same voter. We are waiting for additional information and will take the appropriate action based on our collective findings,” she said.

Matthews did not return a request for comment, but Mark Ard, the director of external affairs for the Florida Department of State, said “it is not uncommon for the Department and/or Supervisors of Elections to receive information from concerned citizens regarding potential ineligibility and/or potential voting fraud.”

“Regardless of the source, if the Department receives list maintenance information, we share that information with the Supervisors of Elections to act accordingly,” Ard said. “However, neither the Department nor Supervisors would, or should, take action to change a voter’s record, to remove a voter from the rolls, or refer a voter for investigation without first exercising due diligence to determine credible and reliable information exists to substantiate the initial information provided.”

A man who answered Heim’s phone number hung up after an NBC News reporter identified themselves. Heim did not respond to an emailed request for comment, either.

Richards did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last year, he stressed that EagleAI doesn’t make determinations about voter eligibility. 

It “simply points out voter registrations that need to be reviewed by the election officials,” he said in an email.

Florida withdrew its membership from another interstate list maintenance program, the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), more than a year ago, after right-wing blogs spread conspiracy theories about the program. ERIC was run by member states and used personal, protected data like driver’s license numbers to ensure accuracy when it’s flagging voter registrations for problems.

Heim himself has a long history in Florida of falsely pushing voter fraud claims.

He is among the leaders of a group called “Defend Florida,” which has traveled the state trying to document voter fraud and then uses the false information it collects to lobby state lawmakers to change Florida voter laws. 

In 2022, he met with Republican Florida state Sen. Travis Hutson to try to claim that his group had found tens of thousands of instances of voter fraud in Florida. After Hutson asked the group for weeks to provide the information, it finally turned over just 230 names, none of whom had committed voter fraud, according to a review by then-Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a Republican who is now a member of Congress.

“They were in my office quite a bit,” Hutson recalled in a Thursday interview with NBC News. “After begging for their data, they finally brought me a list of 230 votes they say were cast illegally. It was not the tens of thousands they claim.”

He said he took the information to Lee, who said after a review that none of the voters flagged had voted more than once.

The group was “saying things like one person would vote in Miami and hours later in the [Florida] Panhandle,” Hutson said. “You can’t even make that drive in like eight hours.”

When Matthews forwarded the email and its 10,000 voter names to local elections officials, she made no mention of the group’s partisan ties or Heim’s long history in the state of falsely pushing voter fraud claims.

She simply requested “action” based, in part, on the EagleAI data.

“Please take action … as you deem appropriate and helpful based on the information and current status of registered voters in your system,” she wrote.

Matt Dixon reported from Florida, and Jane C. Timm from New York.