Real ID, Real Problems: States Cope With Changing Rules, Late Rollouts

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This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In half a dozen states, including the most populous state of California, the Real ID rollout is a real mess.

Technical glitches, delays and miscommunication are roiling the Real ID implementation in those states, calling into question whether residents will have the secure driver’s license needed to travel by air or enter government restricted areas after October 2020.

In California and Maryland, miscommunication between the state motor vehicle departments and the federal Department of Homeland Security about which documents are required to prove residency have sent the states and residents scrambling to recertify Real IDs that were already issued but are no longer valid.

A handful of other states initially delayed implementation by passing laws saying they would not comply for various reasons, from privacy concerns to objections to federal mandates. DHS granted those states more time but is refusing further extensions—and has warned states that if they don’t comply, their residents will need passports to board planes. That brought those states on board, but they are running behind in their efforts.

Some of the states are shifting resources to the problem, finding they must hire more personnel and spend extra money to comply by the deadline.

DHS has postponed the original deadline of 2008 many times since the Real ID law was enacted in 2005, but the department says it has no plans to extend the Oct. 1, 2020, deadline.

In general, that requires identification documents, such as a birth certificate, marriage certificate (for name changes) and original Social Security card, plus two proofs of residency in that state, such as credit card or utility bills, vehicle registration or a bank statement.

A Real ID will not be required to drive a car, so anyone not planning air travel or to enter a secure federal building will not need one. But people lacking the ID who want to board a plane would have to bring another valid document, such as a passport or global entry card.

TSA, which secures U.S. airports, anticipates some confusion come October 2020.

Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the TSA, envisioned a future traveler with nonrefundable plane tickets:

“They step up to the TSA checking station, and if they don’t have a Real ID, the officer is going to say, ‘I’m sorry, this ID is no longer valid,’” Farbstein said. “There is somebody who is between a rock and a hard place.”

While that person may plead with their airline, she added, TSA won’t budge. “That’s why it’s important to do this sooner rather than later,” she said. “TSA knows a thing or two about what people think about waiting in lines.”

In addition to Real IDs, some states along the northern and southern borders are offering an “enhanced” driver’s license, which allows freer passage between the United States and Canada or Mexico. That, too, will work for getting on a plane. The enhanced driver’s licenses are offered in only a few states to only U.S. citizens.

While TSA is putting out public service announcements about the new IDs, notices at the state level vary.

States Scrambling

Maryland began complying with the Real ID law in 2009, requiring new residents or those getting licenses for the first time to provide extra documentation “under a process that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed compliant,” according to Charles Brown, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation and the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

That process required proof of residency and proof of identity, such as Social Security cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates or other identification. The state started issuing Real ID license renewals in 2016. “However, in October 2017, DHS informed Maryland that all customers with a driver’s license or identification card containing the Real ID star, which we began issuing in 2016, must have documents on file” with the departments, Brown said in an email.

As a result, 1 million residents who held the Real ID card had to make a return trip to the MVA so that the state could put copies of their proof of identification and residency on file. The state is scheduling them in groups.

The federal Department of Homeland Security refused to comment on the situation in Maryland and other states, despite repeated requests.

After that date, only driver’s licenses that meet the Real ID security standards can be used to board commercial airline fights or enter a secure federal building such as a military base. The Real ID Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, requires licenses to be marked with a special insignia or star, indicating that holders have gone through extra steps to prove their identity.

Could Plastic Driver’s Licenses Become a Thing of the Past?

More than 2 million of Maryland’s 5 million licensed drivers are Real ID compliant, Brown said. For customers, Maryland is extending hours at MVA offices, opening satellite offices, allowing customers to set up appointments and pledging that the process will take only 15 minutes if an appointment is made. A recent trip to an MVA office in Beltsville revealed long lines but a sense of urgency by staff members to adhere to the 15-minute time frame.

In notices to Maryland divers, the state threatened that failing to meet the new requirements would “result in a recall of your Maryland driver’s license or identification card.” Many residents scrambled to comply.

California, with more than 26 million drivers, faced a similar problem. California DMV spokesman Jaime Garza also blamed changing DHS standards for creating the mess.

“The US Department of Homeland Security unexpectedly changed its originally approved method by which the CA DMV collected two proofs of residency,” Garza wrote in an email. “CA had followed the same DHS approved method that the state of Wisconsin was using to collect two proofs residency.”

The approved Wisconsin procedure would have allowed residents to respond to a letter from the DMV with a “return receipt requested” designation, sending in one proof of residency, with the mailing itself counting as the second proof. Garza provided Stateline with a 2017 letter from DHS official Steve Yonkers, director of the Real ID program, to the Wisconsin DMV approving that process. California based its procedure on the Wisconsin procedure, with DHS’s approval, Garza said. But Wisconsin ultimately went with in-person applications.

But a DHS letter to California in November 2018 reversed that directive, Garza said, saying the process “does not comply” with the Real ID law. That threw the state into a tizzy, he said.

Now, California is sending letters to all residents who provided only one proof of residency, asking them to sign, date and return the letter in a prepaid envelope as a second proof that was not required the first time. Unlike Maryland, California is not requiring drivers to make a return trip to the DMV. “The goal was to make this process as easy and convenient as possible for Californians,” Garza said, noting that it affects 3.6 million Californians holding Real IDs.

But the state has had a big increase in residents crowding into DMVs because of the confusion. Like Maryland, Garza said, California has increased office hours and hired 2,000 additional employees.

Late Adopters

Some states are lagging in issuing Real IDs in part because they fought the idea from the beginning. Seventeen states passed laws restricting or banning its implementation.

Those states get little sympathy from Republican U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, author of the 2005 law.

“The Real ID Act was a key recommendation of the 9-11 Commission to protect Americans from another devastating act of terrorism,” he said in an email. “States have had more than 14 years to comply with the law, and the Department of Homeland Security has provided additional funding to help along the way.”

Much of the opposition came from tea party Republicans who excoriated the Real ID law as an attack on privacy.

Scott Hofstra, chairman of the Central Kentucky Tea Party Patriots, said in a phone interview that his group is worried the federal bureaucrats at the top of DHS could get all kinds of information on cardholders, including medical and criminal histories.

“It takes away a lot of our privacy on the state level and gives it to the Department of Homeland Security,” Hofstra said. “The head of the DHS could tell the state, ‘I want you to list all their medical records on their driver’s license, or criminal records on their driver’s license.’ That’s from one unelected bureaucrat.”

Hofstra, an aircraft maintenance supervisor from Vine Grove, Kentucky, said he will get a Real ID only if his job requires it. To fly, he will use a passport.

Opposition also came from liberal groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, on privacy grounds. The group contended that despite the state-by-state nature of the Real IDs, information would be “consolidated into a national database,” which could be used to track individuals.

The ACLU sued to block implementation of Real ID in New Jersey. The state settled with the group in 2012, agreeing to open the process to comment and suggestions from the public about implementation procedures. The rollout was delayed.

“In 2018, we were really far behind,” said B. Sue Fulton, chief administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, in a phone interview. “We were not ready for the customer volume that would be generated by implementing Real ID.”

In response, she said, the state hired 300 new full-time employees and revamped its licensing software, equipment, online services and procedures. Now, she thinks the state will have fulfilled the requirements by October next year and avoid some of the problems faced in other states, even those that started earlier.

“What gives me the confidence is that we learned so much from other states,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to backtrack, which some of the states had to do.”

Kentucky, one of the states that resisted the law because of opposition from the tea party and other privacy advocates, is just now starting the Real ID process, with new licenses expected in January 2020.

In 2016, the Kentucky legislature passed legislation requiring the Real ID process to start. Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, vetoed it, saying “it has become increasingly clear that there is tremendous opposition and misunderstanding about the bill.”

After getting a federal extension, Kentucky again passed the legislation in 2017. Bevin, to spare Kentuckians from having to carry a passport to fly after their regular license stops working at airports, finally signed it.

Kentucky Transportation Cabinet spokeswoman Naitore Djigbenou said in a phone interview that it would take two years to get Real IDs to everyone who wants one. Nonetheless, she said she was confident that all Kentuckians who want the compliant license will be able to get one before the deadline.

“We are offering two options: a Real ID or a noncompliant card. Some prefer to use a passport to continue to fly,” she said. “This is completely voluntary. It’s not a requirement by any means.”

But Americans aren’t used to carrying a passport when traveling, according to Wayne Sandford, a University of New Haven professor of homeland security and emergency management and a former deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

He said states that started issuing Real IDs early mostly have fewer problems. “The states that said, ‘Nah, we’re not doing it, don’t worry about it, it will never be real’ are in trouble.”

“Now they realize their residents in their states need to have this done or carry a passport. For Americans this would be a really strange request. It’s not like it’s Europe where every country is a state, essentially.”

Sandford speculated that once this initial period of uncertainty and bureaucratic snafus passes, Americans will be pleased with how easily the new licenses allow them to travel. And he pooh-poohs privacy concerns.

Asked if he had privacy concerns, he said in a phone interview, “being from the other side and working in homeland security at the state level, I would say no, I don’t.” His years of working on homeland security issues, he said, have persuaded him that the goal is smooth travel, not invasions of privacy.

“I think it will actually make travel easier.”

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