Real IDiocy

A national identity card issued by the state Department of Licensing? Yes, it's the law—and a dumb, expensive one.

The people of Washington should get ready for a new federal program as well run as FEMA and only slightly less intrusive than surveillance by the NSA (or Tom Cruise with an ultrasound device).

Real ID is coming, and it’s outrageous, onerous, and will cost taxpayers a fortune. If you think $30 car license tabs are going to save you money, the state is going to have to take some of your “savings” back when you go to renew your driver’s license. What privilege are you paying for? You’ll be paying the costs to comply with a new federal mandate that will allow the government to track all U.S. citizens of driving age by issuing new driver’s licenses that meet standards of the Department of Homeland Security.

Your driver’s license, in effect, will become a fully trackable domestic passport. Think of it as a federal-issue ankle bracelet, courtesy of your local department of motor vehicles.

Interestingly, this state wants none of it. Nor do many of the other 49 states. The cost, workloads, coordination, and reorganization necessary to implement the Real ID program will add a tremendous burden to state governments already pressed by escalating costs, strained revenue streams, and less federal assistance.

Putting civil liberties aside for a minute (and why not? Dick Cheney always does), how bad can it be? Congressional supporters of Real ID have estimated the cost of implementation at about $100 million nationally. Yeah, and the Iraq war was supposed to cost a few billion in pocket change. (Cost estimate last week by a Nobel economist: $2 trillion.) Same with Real ID. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates it will cost the states $13 billion.

Here, Washington’s Department of Licensing estimates the costs for converting to the federally mandated identification system at $285,480,506 over the next three biennia. Some of that will be recoverable from the public through higher fees. No federal funds have been earmarked to pay for the program.

The Real ID Act was passed by Congress and signed into law last May by George W. Bush. In the wake of 9/11, the push for a new national identity card had gained some momentum, along with anti-immigration sentiment in Congress. Real ID addressed several issues. It contained provisions that would make it easier to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, and it would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to gain amnesty by claiming persecution abroad. But the major provision was the requirement that all state driver’s licenses meet new federal standards, at least for anyone needing identification for federal benefits, airplane rides, or access to federal offices.

It doesn’t sound so bad on its face, but implementation is complicated. It would require that every one of the millions of drivers in the country go to a licensing center in person with up to five pieces of acceptable identification—passport, birth certificate, Social Security number, utility bills—to prove citizenship and state residency. The state would then verify and copy each of these documents and keep them on file, on paper and in a searchable database that can be checked against immigration, Homeland Security, and Department of Defense databases. Your ID card might even have an embedded computer chip and a photo of you that could be scanned by image recognition software.

Even if the idea of a national identity card doesn’t give you the creeps, is this the best way to do it? Licensing motor vehicle operators is an entirely different task from securing the homeland. In Washington and some other states, for example, you don’t have to be a citizen to drive; we have no databases for keeping the extensive records the feds require; drivers can opt out of having their photograph on their driver’s license for religious reasons; and licenses can be renewed online, and not in person. Every state does things differently with computer technology, software, licensing standards, and formats. In short, licensing programs are set up to certify that folks are qualified to drive cars, trucks, tractors, and motorcycles. They are not set up to run a high-security national ID program.

Take document verification. If the new driver’s license is to be proof of citizenship and residency and connected to you by a Social Security number—something that is difficult to fake or forge—the state must ensure that every citizen’s documentation is correct. The state estimates that ramping up to convert everyone to the Real ID system will require the hiring of between 300 and 400 full-time employees.

As more people become aware of Real ID, resistance is picking up across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the National Taxpayers Union, and others.

In Washington, state Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, has introduced a joint memorial bill in the state House of Representatives asking Congress to repeal Real ID. In an e-mail to Mossback, Nixon writes: “The purpose of the driver’s license is to ensure highway safety, not to act as a national ID card. The federal government should not dictate how Washington must issue driver’s licenses to our own state citizens. If the federal government wants a federal ID for federal purposes, it should set up the infrastructure to do it themselves.” Nixon says if Congress doesn’t repeal Real ID, he’ll advocate that Washington opt out.

Big Brother is bad enough. Do you really want him working for the DMV?