Making it harder to get a driver's license

American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators

The Senate will soon take up a House bill that seeks to establish uniform security standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. But the measure is opposed by governors and state motor vehicle administrators, who say a process already exists for creating new standards.

Part of the Real ID Act, which passed the House by a 261-161 vote Feb. 10, would require states to incorporate minimum information and features into every license and ID card, including biographical data, digital photographs and physical security features to prevent fraud. They would also be required to use a common machine-readable technology with defined minimum data elements.

State officials would have to verify "feeder" documents, such as birth certificates, before issuing driver's licenses and verify the legal status of noncitizens applying for licenses through the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system. To be eligible for federal funding, states would have to share driver's license data and histories electronically through an interstate arrangement.

Fewer than 10 states include any form of biometric identifier, such as facial mapping or digital fingerprints, in their licenses, said Jason King, a spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA). He also said states currently do not share driver's license information with one another.

Under the bill, federal agencies would not have to accept for official purposes any state-issued driver's license or identification card that does not meet the proposed standards.

The bill's primary sponsor, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said the bill addresses a number of vulnerabilities, including states that issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Ten states currently do so.

But in a letter to congressional leaders, officials from the National Governors Association and AAMVA said the bills would impose onerous technological standards and verification procedures on states, representing a massive unfunded federal mandate. The groups also oppose a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

They said the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, enacted late last year, provides a framework for developing standards that would allow state participation, protect existing eligibility criteria and retain the flexibility to incorporate best practices.

James Carafano, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, which supports the House bill, said the government has the right to establish standards for identification cards used for federal purposes.

"If the federal government wants to accept a state driver's license as a proof of identity at an inspection checkpoint on an airplane, the federal government has a perfect right to do that," he said. "As a matter of fact, we think they're stupid for not having firm standards. The identity is really the linchpin of all these security systems."

But Robert Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said the House bill doesn't mandate any security features for driver's licenses that aren't already in place.

"My worry is not that we're not going to get too much security," but rather that we're not going to get enough, he said. He added that the provision requiring states to share driver's license information and history is an important one that should be implemented.

Changing the rules

Highlights of the Real ID Act's driver's license/identification card provisions:

* By 2008, federal agencies may not accept, for official purposes, state-issued driver's licenses or identification cards that fail to meet certain security requirements.

* Driver's licenses should contain at least a person's full legal name, date of birth, gender, card number, digital photograph, address, signature, physical security features to prevent fraud and tampering; and common machine-readable data elements.

* By Sept. 11, 2005, states must have access to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements system to verify legal immigration status of individuals applying for licenses.

* States must capture and store digital images of identity source documents in a transferable format and retain them for 10 years.

* States must use facial image technology for each person applying for a license.

* To get funding, states must participate in an interstate compact to share driver's license data electronically, including a driver's history of motor vehicle violations, suspensions and points.

— Dibya Sarkar

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