License Improvement

Posted July 23, 2009, at 5:34 p.m.

Improving the security of state driver’s licenses has long been necessary, but mandating an expensive national system that would collect and share reams of personal information was too onerous. So, it is encouraging that Congress is reconsidering the Real ID act and preparing to replace it with a more modest system that addresses security concerns without compromising personal privacy.

Although details are still being worked out, it appears the Pass ID bill will contain stronger privacy measures while substantially reducing the cost of the federal system. At the same time, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, long a critic of Real ID, rightly points out that the federal government must strengthen its visa requirements.

Real ID was passed 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, which are issued by the federal government, to get drivers licenses in several states.

The problem must be addressed, but this does not negate the need for stronger state licensing requirements.

This spring, state lawmakers passed a bill to repeal most of a 2008 law that strengthened Maine’s driver’s licenses. The law required that license applicants provide documents showing they live in Maine and are in the United States legally. It was passed because the year before, the federal Department of Homeland Security threatened to stop allowing Mainers to use their driver’s licenses as identification to board airplanes and enter federal buildings if the state did not pledge to work to comply with Real ID requirements by asking for an extension of time to do so.

That situation, unfortunately, wrapped inadequacies in Maine’s licensing requirements into the controversial Real ID program.

There were two problems. First, because Maine didn’t have a residency requirement, it has issued thousands of licenses to people who have listed post office boxes, stores and even the Bureau of Motor Vehicles as their address.

Second, Maine has also issued licenses to people who are in the United States illegally. Fixing this is more problematic because immigration is largely a federal issue, but it is one that can’t be ignored. Between 1976 and 1997, 46 Maine licenses were issued to people without Social Security numbers, which likely indicates they are in the country illegally, according to the Department of Public Safety. In 2007, more than 1,300 were.

The bill that passed the Legislature, LD 1357, retained the residency requirement but eliminated the provision requiring proof of being in the country legally.

Gov. John Baldacci vetoed the measure, leaving the two requirements in place while federal lawmakers look for better ways to achieve the goals of Real ID.

While Real ID was overly burdensome and costly and raised legitimate concerns over how personal information would be handled, Maine and other states should still issue state identification only to people who live in the state and are doing so legally.

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