Registering to Vote May Lead to Identity Theft


Mark Segraves

Could registering to vote put you at risk for identity theft? The possibility is very likely in one local jurisdiction, a WTOP investigation has found.

WTOP was able to obtain the Social Security numbers of registered voters in the District of Columbia including the Social Security number of Mayor Tony Williams and several members of the City Council.

The District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics (DCBOEE) still uses Social Security numbers despite the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), legislation passed in 2002 that advises states not use the government-issued numbers to identify voters.

The federal Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits government agencies from disclosing identification numbers, such as Social Security numbers, to the public.

In many jurisdictions, including the District, a resident's voter history is public record.

Over the course of two months, WTOP requested copies of various D.C. residents' voter history. Most forms provided by the DCBOEE included the voter's Social Security number.

The DCBOEE staff attempted to redact many of the Social Security numbers by crossing them out with a marker. However, the numbers were easily read when simply holding the forms up to a light.

"If any member of the public can check someone's voting record and secure their Social Security number, I just think that's a very, very bad practice," City administrator Robert Bobb told WTOP.

City Council member Vincent Orange (Ward 5), who has oversight of the DCBOEE, was also surprised by WTOP's findings.

"I don't believe that the Social Security number should be provided at all. It's an issue of privacy," Orange said.

In at least one case, there was no attempt to redact the number while in other cases, staff properly redacted the number, making it impossible to read.

Upon learning of WTOP's investigation, DCBOE provided the following response:

"It has never been the policy of the board to give out Social Security numbers." DCBOE Bill O'Field said.

WTOP attempted to retrieve similar information in Maryland and Virginia, but was unable to obtain any critical information.

Arlington County General Registrar Linda Lindberg told WTOP providing Social Security numbers on public documents could "compromise the security and privacy of individuals."

Public knowledge of Social Security numbers can lead to a variety of identity thefts, in addition to voter fraud, Lindberg said.

"If you know the Social Security number of someone who has never registered to vote in Virgina, such as the Mayor of D.C., you could potentially register to vote in Virginia using that number and any other name. And that's voter fraud," she said.

Although Virginia uses Social Security numbers to register voters, a law specifically prohibits any of Virginia's election offices from distributing a voter's Social Security number.

Complete voter Social Security numbers are not kept in Montgomery County Board of Elections offices, Montgomery County Election Director Margaret Jurgensen said.

"Up until this year, we did not have the Social Security number on any of our records. Effective January 1 of this year, we only had the last four digits," Jurgensen said.

Despite HAVA recommendations, residents who go to the DCBOEE Web site were still being instructed to use their Social Security number to register.

As a result of WTOP's investigation, DCBOE officials have changed the instructions on their site and are working to ensure Social Security numbers are not readable on public documents.

However, O'Field was unable to specifically comment on the changes.

"We're looking into ways that no one can get that information form the material that is printed for the public," O'Field said.

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