Maine, along with many other states, appears to be in a no-win situation. The Department of Homeland Security has said it will no longer accept Maine driver’s licenses as acceptable identification to board commercial airplanes beginning next year.
The department has made similar threats for nearly a decade, but has not enforced any of those deadlines. Is it serious this time? No one knows. But, if Maine does not move toward compliant licenses, residents could be barred beginning next month from military bases, including their health clinics. This is not a risk lawmakers should want to face.
But even if Maine developed a new licensing system that meets the requirements of the Real ID act, it would take years to issue new documents to all of the state’s license holders. Maine has the capacity to issue about 220,000 licenses a year, and there are currently 1 million valid Maine licenses.
This highlights the need for a federal fix to the Real ID act, rather than piecemeal state action that may, or may not, satisfy federal officials. There is no guarantee, however, that such a fix is forthcoming, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House.
Real ID passed Congress in 2005 with the promise of ensuring that terrorists didn’t get U.S. identification. A major problem with this rationale is that the Sept. 11 hijackers had U.S. visas, some obtained fraudulently. They used the visas, issued by the federal government, to get licenses in several states. It was the visas, not licenses, that proved valuable to terrorists.
Confused logic has continued to pervade Real ID compliance. For example, DHS calls Arizona compliant with the law even though it allows residents to choose a Real ID-compliant identification card, but does not require or issue such IDs to all applicants.
An analysis of Real ID compliance by the Maine Secretary of State’s office found that only 24 states had been deemed compliant with the act. The remaining 26 states account for 63 percent of the total number of licenses issued in the United States, more than 133 million driver’s licenses.
Maine lawmakers, in 2007, passed a law barring the state from complying with Real ID. Despite this, the state did make needed improvements to the licensing process, including requiring documentation to prove that license applications were in the U.S. legally and resided in Maine.
The state has failed to meet some of the Real ID act’s more controversial requirements, such as using facial recognition software at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices and fingerprinting Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees. In addition, the state hasn’t started to use Homeland Security-approved security markings on ID cards.
Maine has long had a principled argument to make for not complying with the federal government’s Real ID program, especially due to concerns about the privacy of information that must be shared with and stored by the federal government. We supported that position. More than a decade after the law’s implementation, however, it is becoming clear that Maine residents may soon be punished because their driver’s licenses don’t comply with the federal law. Maine was denied an extension in October to comply with the law.
The state’s arguments against the law remain valid, but reality — the prospect that Maine residents could face real consequences and inconveniences — demands that, in the absence of movement by Congress to change the law’s requirements or or movement by DHS to again extend compliance deadlines, Maine should join other states in moving forward with upgrades to driver’s licenses to comply with federal standards.