With mail-in ballot use on the rise in Tennessee, some worry about safety of Social Security numbers

Correction: A previous version misspelled Bradley Malin’s last name. 

Gail Smithwick found herself torn between voting in person and casting a mail-in ballot for August’s primary election. 

But more than a concern over the spread of COVID-19 in gathering places like polling precincts, Smithwick was worried that her personal information might have been put at risk by sending it through the absentee ballot application process. 

Tennessee has required voters to provide their full Social Security number during registration since at least 1972, according to Julia Bruck with the Secretary of State’s office. 

It’s kept as a confidential record under state law and used as a verification of a voter’s identity when applying for absentee ballots, Bruck said. 

“In addition, using the full SSN aids Tennessee in maintaining accurate voter registration rolls of eligible citizens by facilitating the removal of voters who become disqualified due to moving to another jurisdiction, death or a felony conviction,” she said. 

It’s also required as an identifier on the application for an absentee ballot, which Smithwick wanted to file before August’s primary and is considering for the general election in November. 

That’s what worries her: Who is making sure no one has access to that information that shouldn’t have it?

“You’re always told not to give it out. It’s important, you guard it,” the 74-year-old said. “You used to carry the card with you, or I did. But now it’s a little bit of a concern.”

In 2019, Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, and Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, introduced a measure seeking to eliminate the use of voters’ entire Social Security number on absentee ballots.

“We ask our seniors to protect their information, and we ask them not to give their Social Security numbers out,” Dixie said, presenting the bill in a House committee.

Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, asked how without voters’ full Social Security number election officials could verify their identity.

State elections coordinator Mark Goins said applicants seeking an absentee ballot have their name, date of birth and last four digits of their Social Security number cross checked with the state’s voter registration rolls to verify their identity.

If those things match, the request for an absentee ballot would be granted, he said.

Goins, who pointed out the legislation was made at the request of Davidson County election officials, said Tennessee was in the minority of states that require full Social Security numbers on absentee ballots.

“Because of that, we have some of the cleaner voter rolls compared to the other states,” he said, without citing evidence.

Further, Goins said in Tennessee’s larger counties, there are a surprising number of people who have the same last four digits of their Social Security number and in some instances similar names.

Noting how Tennessee was grandfathered in, he said if the law were to change, the state would “lose it forever.”

Less than a minute later, the five-member House Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee rejected Dixie’s bill on a voice vote, without any discussion. Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, cast the lone vote in favor of the bill.

The Senate version of the measure was never considered in committee.

Elections officials say data is secure

Elections officials say the information is secure.

But it remains unclear, at least in Davidson County, how that information is protected in emailed applications.

Tennessee voters must apply for an absentee ballot and provide a reason for wanting to vote by mail. A Davidson County judge ruled last month to allow concern over COVID-19 to be a valid reason to vote absentee, although the question remains before the courts. 

The state is appealing the decision, and the state Supreme Court on Thursday hears oral arguments in the case. 

The form for the application process requires personal information, and can be returned either through regular mail or emailed to the department. It’s reviewed in comparison to the identifying information on file, and a ballot is sent out to a voter through the mail after confirmation.

And in a year with a record-breaking number of ballot applications, what’s being done with that data is a big question. 

State law guides how long records, including a voters’ application with Social Security numbers, are kept, which varies based on whether the election in question was local or federal. Metro policy guides digital email retention. Neither offer a clear line on what happens to the emailed copies. 

“That’s kind of our standard rule here. We treat all of that information like it’s our own. We are very cautious with the voter’s personal information,” Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Roberts said. 

Physical copies are kept locked up at the Election Commission offices, he said, and destroyed when they’re supposed to be. 

Also, all workers, including those who handle the absentee ballot applications and poll officials on election day, go through background checks and training before working with the ballots. 

“These aren’t just people off the street,” he said. 

An expert on information security says he hasn’t heard of any security breaches targeting Tennessee voter information, but suggests that Social Security numbers are not a good tool for identification anyway. 

“Tennessee is one of the only states that actually requires Social Security numbers for absentee voting,” said Bradley Malin, a professor of Biomedical Informatics, Biostatistics and computer science at Vanderbilt University. “I think that’s a recognition by other states that that the Social Security number is somewhat of a sensitive value, and that it shouldn’t necessarily be used for tracking individuals.”

“The longer you hold information, the greater the chance that it will be breached at some point in time,” he said. 

Most voter registration information is public record

Most of the information in a voter registration file is public record, including a name and address, but Social Security numbers are not. Some states, Malins said, discard the records of the numbers after the registration is confirmed and use other means to identify a voter going forward. 

“I wouldn’t say that an election commission is any more or less secure than any other government agency. If they’re using email servers that are connected to the internet, they’re still managing this information and databases that are accessible over the internet. So it’s the same type of information security threat that you would encounter at any place on a daily basis,” he said. 

For many, the advantages of voting by mail outweigh concerns. 

But not for Smithwick. 

“Aside from my age, I don’t have any risk factors. If I did, I probably wouldn’t vote, if that was the choice, to risk my Social Security number or my health,” she said. “I don’t think I’m overreacting.” 

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Reach Joel Ebert at jebert@tennessean.com or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.


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