Panel debates Real ID

Maine’s Department of the Secretary of State

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Matthew Dunlap, Maine's secretary of state who oversees the motor vehicles bureau, said last week he’s unsure how state governments will link their computer systems and share data about drivers as required under new federal legislation.

The Real ID Act, which was part of the supplemental bill signed into law by President Bush May 11, requires state governments to adopt minimum national standards and physical features, including biographic and biometric data, for machine readable driver's licenses within three years. Individuals who hold driver's licenses from states that don’t comply with the law will be barred from entering federal buildings and flying on planes, among other restrictions.

State motor vehicle department employees must verify that breeder documents – such as birth certificates used to get driver’s licenses and photo ID cards – are genuine. Motor vehicle offices must also connect their databases to share driver information, among other things.

During a May 26 panel discussion, hosted by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, on the Real ID Act’s merits and consequences, Dunlap said the law poses an acute administrative challenge because states have differences in demographics, populations, levels of customer service and access to technology.

For example, Maine’s motor vehicles bureau has 13 branch offices and two mobile units and serves 900,000 people. It is currently upgrading its computer system at a cost of $13 million, he said. How states will implement the new law’s provisions, including connecting the computer systems and training employees, and at what cost remains unclear at this point, he added.

The “convoy can only move as fast as its slowest ship,” Dunlap said.

But Amanda Bowman, president of the non-profit Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, which was founded shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, said the law makes sense because it strengthen the driver’s license as an identity document. She also said the improved measures are not anti-immigrant in nature.

“This is really our internal passport and we don’t know much about people carrying those passports,” she said referring to driver’s licenses. “It is not an effort to penalize immigrants.”

She cited that about 100,000 New York state residents had their Social Security Numbers used without their knowledge to obtain identity cards and many people were caught with multiple driver’s licenses from several states. She said New York state officials estimated it would cost $1 per driver’s license to improve document security.

Gustavo Torres, executive director for CASA of Maryland, a Silver Spring, Md.-based community organization serving Latinos, said the law could spur undocumented immigrants, who are estimated to number between 8 million to 12 million, to drive without a license and insurance. He also said the law took away flexibility among states to deal with the problem.

He added that motor vehicle department employees have no expertise in verifying the different forms of immigrant documents that exist, such as those indicating refugee status, which is a complicated problem.

Dunlap said it is asking a lot of motor vehicle employees to become experts in verifying various forms of documents before approving a driver’s license. He also predicted longer wait times at motor vehicle branches and deteriorating customer service.

Dunlap was a member of the rulemaking committee – established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 – whose function was to establish national standards for driver’s licenses and identity cards by this fall. Passage of the Real ID Act effectively disbanded the rulemaking committee, which included representatives from various groups, such as the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and others.

Those groups fought passage of the Real ID Act, saying it would cost $500 million to $700 million over five years to implement the provisions. A Congressional Budget Office estimate pegged the cost at $100 million over the same time.

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