Stateline Story

Two States Lead Revolt Against Real ID

  • April 18, 2007
  • By Eric Kelderman

Updated 3:50 p.m. EDT, Wednesday

Montana and Washington state defied the U.S. government this week, enacting the first state laws to reject the 2005 federal Real ID Act and ratcheting up pressure on Congress to amend or repeal national standards for driver's licenses.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) signed legislation Tuesday (April 17) that bans the state's Motor Vehicle Division from enforcing the national rules , which set uniform security features for driver's licenses and require states to verify the identity of all driver's license applicants.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) signed a bill Wednesday (April 18) barring that state from complying unless the federal government comes up with an extra $250 million to cover the state's expenses. The law also gives Washington's attorney general the right to challenge Real ID in court.

Montana's Schweitzer complained that the Real ID law is another way for the federal government to stomp on residents' personal privacy. "Montanans don't want the federal agents listening to their phone conversations, rifling through their papers, checking on what books they read and monitoring where they go and when. We think they ought to mind their own business," he said in a written statement.

Gregoire in a statement said the Real ID Act "is another unfunded mandate from the federal government and, even worse, it doesn't protect the privacy of the citizens of Washington."

In all, 30 states have passed or are considering proposals condemning the license standards. State lawmakers have railed at the costs and deadlines imposed on states, at federal intrusion into what had been a state responsibility and the specter of a national ID card. But the Montana and Washington actions stand out as the first statutes to bar state agencies from participating in Real ID, which passed Congress without floor debate, attached to a 2005 bill funding the war in Iraq and international aid after the Asian tsunami.

Legislatures in Idaho and Maine have passed nonbinding measures protesting the 2005 act. Arkansas lawmakers have approved one resolution calling for Congress to repeal the act and another that asks for civil-liberty protections and full funding to meet the estimated $14 billion cost to states. None of those measures carries the weight of law or required a governor's signature.

Bills condemning Real ID have been approved by one chamber in another 13 legislatures and have been introduced in 12 more.

"When a state like Montana tells the federal government to take a hike, it brings down the whole house of cards. If there was ever any question that Congress would be forced to revisit this misguided law, there is no more," Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

States have held out hope that the new Democratic majority in Congress will pay more attention to their concerns than the Republicans did. U.S. Sens. Daniel Akaka (D) of Hawaii and John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire have revived a 2006 bill to repeal Real ID. U.S. Rep. Tom Allen (D) of Maine also has submitted a bill rejecting the act.

Real ID requires that all new and existing driver's license applicants present and states verify: a form of photo identification, a document showing date of birth, proof of a Social Security number and a document with the name and address of the applicant.

All state-issued driver's licenses must include an individual's name, address, date of birth, gender, signature, driver's license number, a digital photograph and several features to prevent counterfeiting.

Driver's license bureaus would feed information into databases to verify applicants' identity, leading critics to worry about invasions of privacy and identify theft.

Cost also is a primary concern. State officials decry the act as a giant unfunded mandate. Congress has appropriated just $40 million for states to begin verifying and reissuing an estimated 245 million driver's licenses and identification cards.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in March said states could use 20 percent of their federal homeland security grants to help meet costs. But those amounts are just a fraction of the total $14.6 billion that the department estimates the law will cost states. In addition, the law will impose $7.9 billion in costs on individuals and $617 million on the federal government, according to homeland security figures.

Time is another problem, say states. The initial deadline to begin issuing compliant licenses is May 11, 2008, although states can apply for an extension until Dec. 31, 2009. That won't help, state officials counter, because all existing licenses still have to be reissued by 2013, so states that delay actually have a smaller window to meet the law.

Montana state Rep. Brady Wiseman (D), a sponsor of his state's legislation, said his colleagues were most concerned about privacy issues and Real ID's requirement to digitally store personal information and make that information available to other states. "We just didn't see the benefit here from going through all that rigmarole," said Wiseman, whose bill passed the Republican-controlled state House and Democratic-controlled Senate with unanimous support.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Cato Institute both oppose Real ID on the grounds that it will violate civil liberties.

"The states reserve the right to choose not to comply with Real ID," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But he noted that citizens in states without compliant licenses will not be able to use their licenses to board commercial flights or enter federal buildings.