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Clerk wants Social Security numbers dropped from voter registration

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – In the wake of an investigation into identity theft in his office, Doña Ana County Clerk Lynn Ellins is proposing to change how much personal information New Mexico counties collect on voters.

Federal authorities last week took former clerk’s office employee Maria Ceniceros into custody for allegedly stealing the personal information of Doña Ana County registered voters – including names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth – to use in an international criminal check-cashing scheme.

Now Ellins says he will push for New Mexico to drop Social Security numbers from voter registrations, or reduce them to the last four digits only.

New Mexico is one of only four states that require full Social Security numbers to register to vote, he said.

“New Mexico has been using Social Security numbers for the purpose of voter registration since the early 1940s, so it’s deeply embedded in the system,” he said.

The subject is expected to be a matter of debate during this week’s meeting in Albuquerque of the County Clerks Affiliate, according to executive director Daniel Ivey-Soto. The affiliate is an association of the state’s 33 county clerks.

Social Security numbers serve a purpose, Ivey-Soto said, including making it easier for clerks to find death records when a registered voter dies out of state.

“What has happened in Doña Ana County has made us aware of the need to beef up the security of records,” Ivey-Soto said. “In order to get rid of Social Security numbers, it would take legislative change. But to beef up security, it takes administrative willpower.”

In Doña Ana County, Ellins said the information technology department is looking at additional security measures, including heightened surveillance and possibly monitoring computer use. He has also pulled together a committee of community leaders to review internal procedures and make recommendations.

But few measures on the table offer a fool-proof guarantee against identity theft.

Unlike recent high-tech security breaches at major national retailers Home Depot and Target – in which millions of shoppers’ credit cards were compromised by malware – the breach at the clerk’s office was decidedly low-tech: Ceniceros allegedly copied down voter information by hand onto notebook paper.

During a search of her home last month, investigators found lists of voter identities copied onto loose-leaf stashed in her bedroom dresser.

The county runs background checks on all full-time employees, but Ceniceros’ arrest represents her first alleged federal offense, Ellins said.

The information she allegedly gleaned was used by people in Mexico to prepare fraudulent U.S. tax returns. When the tax refund checks came in, Ceniceros allegedly forged signatures to endorse the checks, obtained notarizations from other low-level employees at the clerk’s office – three of whom were also arrested – and reportedly took a cut of the cashed checks.

“We have, however, many hundreds of thousands of voter registrations in the state database,” said Ellins, who is serving a second consecutive term as county clerk. “To go in and change all those would be mind-boggling … but it’s my understanding it would be possible to design a system that would use something other than a Social Security number.”

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