December 03, 2019
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What you need to know now that Maine’s driver’s licenses comply with federal law

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
On Monday, Maine began to issue driver's license and identification that comply with Real ID, a federal law regulating state-issued identification.

Maine is now issuing driver’s licenses that comply with a controversial federal law regulating state-issued identification.

The Maine secretary of state’s office made the announcement Monday morning, saying that licenses and identification compliant with the federal Real ID Act can be obtained at all Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices.

It wasn’t always certain that Maine would comply with Real ID, and it’s been a long road that has led to this point. Here’s a look at Real ID, why Maine wasn’t in compliance until Monday and what that means for you.

What is Real ID?

Real ID emerged among legislation passed to address national security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. It was one of the key policy recommendations included in the voluminous 9/11 commission report.

The Real ID Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law on May 11, 2005, set national standards to improve the security of state-issued identification to prevent undocumented immigrants and terrorists from obtaining U.S. driver’s licenses. Several of the 9/11 hijackers had obtained state-issued driver’s licenses in the months leading up to the attacks.

Those requirements include using facial recognition software at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices, fingerprinting Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees and Homeland Security-approved security markings on ID cards, among other standards.

The law requires compliant identification for federal purposes, such as entering certain secure federal facilities — the U.S. mint, military bases, nuclear plants and the Homeland Security headquarters — and for boarding domestic flights.

Congress charged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with enforcing compliance with that law.

Why is Maine only now complying?

Maine was among many states that balked at the law’s requirements, seeing it as federal overreach and the first step toward a de facto “internal passport.” States were particularly troubled by the requirement that they retain digital images of birth certificates, Social Security cards and other identity-verifying information in a central database that other states and the federal government can access. (Homeland Security later waived compliance with that requirement for all states.)

In fact, Maine was considered as a leader of the national protest against Real ID.

The Maine Legislature in 2007 passed a bill forbidding the Maine secretary of state’s office from complying, in essence enshrining its protest in statute. (In 2011, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a prohibition against using facial recognition software when Mainers get driver’s licenses and restricting how information used to create licenses is shared or stored.) Another 26 states followed suit, passing laws prohibiting compliance with Real ID or resolutions opposing it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“One of the real weaknesses of the Real ID Act is that if just one state is not in compliance, then the whole act is worthless,” Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a critic of Real ID, told the BDN in 2015.

Opponents hoped these state-level actions would pressure Congress to repeal Real ID. Congress, however, wasn’t moved. As states pushed back, the Department of Homeland Security delayed the law’s implementation.

What caused Maine to change its stance?

That all changed under President Barack Obama when, in January 2016, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a hard deadline — Jan. 22, 2018 — for states to get in line with Real ID. With that came the threat that residents of noncompliant states would no longer be permitted to use their state-issued identification to board domestic flights.

In early 2016, Maine and 26 other states, as well as the five U.S. territories, were technically not in compliance with the law. But as the pressure mounted, more states began to take steps toward compliance.

The catalyst moment for Maine came in October 2016, when Homeland Security denied the state a reprieve from the law’s requirements, saying in a letter that Maine “had not provided adequate justification for continued noncompliance.”

That created a headache for Maine firefighters who missed out on a training opportunity at the National Fire Academy, run by the U.S. Fire Administration, a unit of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, in part because of the state’s noncompliance with Real ID. The federal government in January 2017 stopped permitting access to certain federal facilities — military bases, the U.S. mint and nuclear power plants, among others — to visitors with Maine-issued driver’s licenses. About 500 Maine veterans were told in late 2016 that their driver’s licenses wouldn’t be accepted to enter the Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington, New Hampshire, where they receive health care.

By late April 2017, LePage signed into a law a bill repealing Maine’s statutory protest against Real ID and directed Dunlap’s office to bring the state into compliance no later than July 1, 2019.

In October 2017, Homeland Security granted Maine a waiver from Real ID compliance as the state took steps to meet the law’s requirements. The following October, Homeland Security granted Maine its last reprieve from compliance.

What will be different about Real ID-compliant identification?

The Maine secretary of state’s office in April unveiled a new design for the state’s driver’s licenses and identification. The new design will replace the moose-and-mountain design adopted in 2010 by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which is overseen by the secretary of state’s office. That design features an outline of the state of Maine, a white pine cone (state tree), a tassel (state flower) and a black-capped chickadee (state bird), as well as iconic state imagery, including a potato field, lighthouse, sailboat, mountain and sunrise.

Office of the Maine Secretary of State | BDN
Office of the Maine Secretary of State | BDN
The Maine secretary of state's office on April 8 unveiled a new design for state-issued identification meant to improve the security of the documents.

Among the new features is a gold circle with a white star in the upper right corner of the document. That will be replaced at a later date with a golden-colored Maine with a white star within it once the state finishes testing and finalizing the new design and associated systems, Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for Dunlap, said Wednesday in an email. That signals its compliance with Real ID. Most other changes Maine has made to be compliant won’t be noticeable.

Do I need to get my identification changed now?

If your driver’s license or identification isn’t set to expire yet, there’s no rush to go out and get a new one.

Homeland Security isn’t enforcing Real ID until October 2020, the Maine secretary of state’s office said Monday morning. But once enforcement begins, anyone without compliant identification will be denied entrance into secure federal facilities. You also won’t be able to board a plane for domestic air travel without a compliant identification or accepted alternative, such as a U.S. passport or passport card.

The cost for renewal also is increasing from $30 to $55 for noncommercial, Real ID-compliant licenses.

Do I need identification compliant with Real ID?

The bill signed into law back in 2017 allows Mainers to opt out of Real ID. A noncompliant identification will resemble the new design without the golden circle or Maine and white star, Muszynski told the BDN in April.

That, of course, means Mainers who choose to receive a noncompliant identification will need to present an accepted alternate form of identification for boarding domestic flights.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this report misstated how many states aren’t in compliance with Real ID.


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