Real ID Dropouts Leave Security Holes

By: - June 1, 2007 12:00 am

Defying Uncle Sam, four states have passed laws refusing to comply with federal rules to make state-issued driver’s licenses more secure, casting further doubt on the future of the 2005 Real ID Act.

Although it is rare for states to reject an act of Congress, New Hampshire and Oklahoma in May joined Montana and Washington state in passing statutes this year refusing to go along with Real ID. The refusals mean those states’ driver’s licenses eventually won’t be accepted as official identification when boarding airplanes or federal buildings.

In addition, the Idaho Legislature purposely left out any money to comply with the act. The Georgia Legislature passed a law giving Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) authority to ignore the measure, but he is hoping the federal government will make the act more affordable, said his spokesman, Bert Brantley.

Jim Harper of the libertarian Cato Institute, which opposes the driver’s license rules, said the states’ rejections doom the act to failure. “It’s more and more clear that the Real ID system won’t work to secure the country,” he said. More states are likely to refuse the requirements, creating a nightmare at airports where security screeners will have to distinguish between licenses that are Real ID-compliant and those that aren’t, Harper said.

The state-led revolt is building pressure on Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to change or even rescind the law, which will require states to verify the identity of all 245 million licensed drivers and impose a common set of security features. States have rebelled at the $14 billion in costs the act imposes on states, as well as worries that the new security system will invade residents’ privacy and create what amounts to a national ID card.

On Capitol Hill, two bills would repeal the law, one co-sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). However, an amendment to the immigration bill now being debated in the U.S. Senate would ratchet up the consequences for states that fail to comply with Real ID. The Senate’s proposed immigration law would require job applicants to verify their citizenship to employers using a driver’s license that meets Real ID standards or with a passport.

“If the Senate bill passes … everyone will need a Real ID to get their next job,” said Tim Sparapani, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has raised concerns about Real ID’s threat to personal privacy.

Employees currently can use 29 different forms of identification to establish their residency status, and only 26 percent of U.S. residents have a passport, Sparapani said.

Montana Sens. Max Baucus (D) and Jon Tester (D) have co-sponsored an amendment that would strip the Real ID provision from the immigration bill.

Final rules due out this summer from the Homeland Security Department likely will deal with how states complying with the law will be able to verify information from those refusing to comply, said department spokesman Russ Knocke.

Real ID has been a constant concern for states and privacy advocates on both ends of the political spectrum since before it was passed, without debate, as an attachment to an emergency spending measure for the war in Iraq and aid for Asian tsunami victims.

The act requires states to reissue all driver’s licenses by 2013. States must start enforcing the new security measures for license applicants beginning next May or may seek an extension until the end of 2009. Drivers will have to renew their licenses in person and show a form of photo identification and documents proving their date of birth, Social Security number and address.

State motor vehicle departments will have to digitally store applicants’ identification documents and share the information with other states to verify the identity of individuals who were born in or have moved from another state.

Real ID was passed as a response to recommendations of a task force studying the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that found that several hijackers had obtained and used state driver’s licenses to board airplanes. The law also was meant as a broad measure to keep illegal immigrants from getting official identification.

Congress has appropriated only $40 million to meet the law’s requirements, money that homeland security officials have clarified will be given out as grants to develop best practices. States also would be allowed to use 20 percent of their federal homeland security grants, but state officials point out those funds are already dedicated.

New Hampshire state Rep. Neal Kurk (R), said most people’s first reaction to Real ID was: “You gotta be kidding. Kurk said his colleagues and constituents were more concerned that stored vital records would be vulnerable to hackers than they were about needing a passport to board an airplane.

Knocke, a spokesman for the homeland security department, said that citizens of states that are not compliant would be unhappy when they realize they can’t use their driver’s licenses to board flights. “It’s tough for anyone to advocate for less secure identification standards. We have a known vulnerability with driver’s licenses,” he said.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is asking the Homeland Security Department to allow states 10 years after Real ID rules are finalized to reissue existing licenses and to decrease costs by exempting military personnel and others with federal identification from the rigid screening process. If those conditions cannot be met by the end of 2007, NCSL plans to call for repeal of Real ID.

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