If you live in Arizona, Louisiana, New York, or one of more than a dozen other states, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has bad news for you. Come January 19, your driver’s license will no longer allow you access to certain federal facilities. Unless DHS changes its mind. Again.
In 2005, Congress passed a bill called the Real ID Act, based upon recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission. Whether or not you’ve heard of the law depends largely upon how in tune you are with conspiracy theories. Where you live matters, too, because nearly a decade after the law’s passage, only 19 states actually comply with its standards.
Real ID’s stated intent is to ensure that all jurisdictions issuing driver’s licenses and other identification meet federal standards, “which should inhibit terrorists’ ability to evade detection by using fraudulent identification.” Basically, the government is upping the ante on what it will accept as valid forms of ID at federal facilities, nuclear power plants, and—here’s the biggie—federally regulated airline flights (i.e., most of them).
Opponents fear that Real ID will lead to a national identity card like those issued by “totalitarian” governments and that its requirement that states share data from their department of motor vehicle databases is an invasion of privacy. Others object because Congress didn’t offer financial backing to help states implement Real ID. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contends that the program wastes state resources while doing little to combat terrorism, calling it a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
For its part, Homeland Security promises that Real ID will leave states with control over the look and administration of driver’s licenses, and, more important, over the information they collect to issue them. “There is no federal database of driver information,” the agency says on its website, although the ACLU contends that the law says otherwise. What does non-compliance mean for residents of those states? Most states have been granted extensions, although many have passed legislation that amounts to a promise not to comply.
For most Americans, that flight restriction is the big worry. But DHS says that any state driver’s license will be accepted as a valid ID at airports until at least 2016. And after that, passports and other federal IDs will work. The ACLU doesn’t put much stock in DHS deadlines either way, including the latest one. “We know how it’s going to play out because it’s played out three times already,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU. “They give a deadline, the deadline goes, and then they give an extension. The states know that DHS isn’t going to keep all the residents from non–Real ID states from boarding airplanes.” Which means that those refusing to play along might just achieve the goal of dooming Real ID to failure.