Op-ed: REAL ID is reasonable federal standard, not federal intrusion

First Published      Last Updated Jun 16 2016 07:20 pm

Jim Harper of the Cato Institute is urging Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to cut funding for REAL ID, a 2005 federal antiterrorism law designed to improve the security of driver licenses and prevent identity theft and fraud. Such a move would undo the progress Utah and rest of the states have made, waste $300 million taxpayer dollars and ultimately result in a loss of robust privacy protections that have resulted from REAL ID's implementation.

Based on a 9/11 Commission, the 2005 federal REAL ID Act prohibits federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from accepting driver licenses that do not meet standards set by Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The REAL ID standards seek to prevent the bad guys from exploiting weaknesses in the application process to get a driver license under a false identity. To date, 24 states have met all the REAL ID standards. Another 23 have committed to doing so. Suffice to say, REAL ID standards should be aptly described as best practices for issuing driver licenses.

In January, eight years after the REAL ID standards were released, DHS announced that TSA would no longer accept driver licenses that do not meet the REAL ID standards to board airplanes starting in 2018. States that ultimately followed Harper's advice and refused to implement the REAL ID standards now face increased costs to meet the standards over a relatively short period of time. Concern that the state's driver license would not be accepted at airports has caused a surge in passport applications, dramatically increasing wait times, as was the case with New Mexico.

Fortunately, Utah is not one of those states. Utah met the standards in 2013, taking advantage of the $300 million that DHS allocated for REAL ID grant funding. Because the state moved quickly to implement the standards, Utah residents will be able to board airplanes in 2018.

But Harper argues that, "REAL ID will be a federally run national ID system, making Americans' data available to any DMV, and soon enough to DHS bureaucrats, from Maine to Alaska." REAL ID does not create a national database nor is the federal government granted any access to DMVs. DMVs are required to verify that an applicant does not have another license in another state. Suspended and revoked drivers from neighboring states often take advantage of the fact that many DMVs do not talk to each other. They bring in their original documents (birth certificate, Social Security card, etc.), easily faked residency documents, and obtain a new license in another state that does not have any points or infractions on it.

REAL ID closes that vulnerability by requiring states to verify that an applicant has one license in one state. This provision prevents bad drivers from continuing to drive and adds an important layer of security to preventing identity theft and fraud. But perhaps the most telling evidence is that Utah has been a REAL ID state for three years, and yet Big Brother is nowhere to be found.

The fact remains that REAL ID has been accepted by nearly all the states. Nearly half the states are meeting the REAL ID standards, three more, New Hampshire, Idaho, New Mexico and soon, Louisiana, have all passed REAL ID bills this year. Many issues face the Congress and the House and Senate Appropriations committees, but fortunately, REAL ID is not one of them.

Andrew Meehan is policy director of Keeping IDentities Safe.