REAL ID — Real Questions

By: - February 24, 2006 12:00 am

In 1903, Missouri became one of the first states to require driver’s licenses.  Applicants lined up at their local gas station and paid 25 cents.  Tests wouldn’t be required for another 49 years.
To get a Washington state driver’s license in 1921, would-be drivers had to show signatures of two people who vouched that the applicant was a safe driver.
South Dakota was the last state to enact a license law.  The year was 1954.  
Since the inception of the driver’s license, states have exercised a great deal of flexibility and autonomy in determining the standards and criteria for issuing them.  That freedom is coming to a screeching halt in the face of the federal REAL ID Act.
Under REAL ID, federal lawmakers inside the Washington Beltway intend to take over state-issued driver’s licenses and other identifying documents to create a universally accepted national identification card.  The law — intended to make it more difficult for terrorists to obtain legitimate forms of identification — will likely leave states holding the bag.
The federal act requires states to issue REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards to more than 242 million people.  In so doing, each individual’s Social Security number, vital records (birth certificates, etc.) and legal resident status must be verified through government databases that either do not exist or do not have the capacity to handle such volume.  Additionally, documents that verify that applicants are who they say they are must be scanned and stored electronically while the information on each driver’s license must be made accessible to other states through a system that has yet to be determined.
REAL ID is likely to increase visits to state departments of motor vehicles by more than 75 percent each year.  
States created driver’s licenses to keep roads safe. States’ driver’s licenses are different from one another just as states’ roads are.  Driver’s licensing rules and regulations have evolved during the past century to address the traffic safety needs of each individual state.
After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, most states examined their driver’s licensing procedures and enacted measures that strengthened these documents.  Licenses are now more secure documents because of biometric technology, updated eligibility requirements and more advanced anti-counterfeit measures.
Now, federal legislators and rule makers are negating state driver’s license security efforts, imposing difficult-to-comply-with mandates and limiting their flexibility to address new concerns as they arise.  In other words, decades of state experience is being substituted for a “command and control regime” from a level of government that has no driver’s license regulatory experience.
Making matters worse, Congress and the Bush administration have not given states the money they need to put REAL ID in place.  In fact, they haven’t even provided funding to carry out the mission of improving federal record-keeping necessary for identity verification.  Yet they have set an ambitious goal for states to meet all the requirements of the law by May 11, 2008. 
Motor vehicle administrators say that reissuing 242 million licenses and identification cards could take eight years alone, putting full implementation at 2016 at the earliest.  That, of course, does not take into consideration the time it takes to get the technology up and running.
Equipment, technology and personnel are all needed to make the REAL ID Act work.  No one knows its true price.  But if driver’s license security is so important to the inside-the-Beltway legislators, they ought to commit to pay for REAL ID, regardless of its cost.
Otherwise, its dues will be borne by the states at the expense of other programs such as K – 12 and higher education, children’s health and economic development. And that’s too high a price to pay.

William T. Pound is the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization based in Denver that provides research and policy assistance for legislators and staffs of the states, commonwealths and territories.

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