My driver’s license is emblazoned with my state’s tourist-tempting self-assigned nickname, the Sunshine State. But I don’t yet have the latest and greatest adornment a Florida motorist can earn, which is a gold star.
The gold star indicates compliance with the standards set by the 2005 federal REAL ID Act. The law, which has been promoted primarily as an anti-terrorism measure, seeks to set minimum standards for state-issued identification cards, such as driver’s licenses.
Obtaining and renewing REAL IDs, unlike the older and presumably less real ones, requires individuals to provide an assortment of documents as proof of identity, legal residence and date of birth. Under the REAL ID Act, states also must “establish an effective procedure to confirm or verify a renewing applicant’s information.” In Florida, that will mean that individuals can renew a license online only once, after which they must appear in person at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
In a nod to state sovereignty, the federal statute does not technically require states to make any changes to their ID-granting procedures. However, eventually only ID cards that meet the federal standards will be accepted by federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration. If states fail to meet the guidelines, their residents will need to present alternate identification, such as a passport, to board a plane or enter a federal building.
The deadline for compliance has been pushed back several times. Currently, individuals born after December 1, 1964, will be permitted to use noncompliant ID cards until December 1, 2014, while those born before 1964 have until December 1, 2017, to earn their gold stars.
As of this month, 20 states (including Florida) have met all 39 requirements to begin issuing compliant IDs, according to the Department of Homeland Security. A few other states, however, such as Louisiana, have passed resolutions specifically prohibiting their motor vehicle departments from complying.
In addition to the sunshine, one of the things I like about Florida is its generally laissez-faire and easy-to-navigate state government. One would not expect Florida to turn up on a list of states eager to ratchet up bureaucracy. Unfortunately, Florida has a specific connection to the REAL ID Act: 13 of the 19 terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks had Florida driver’s licenses or ID cards. In a reaction to this disturbing history, Florida was quick to implement the new standards.
The REAL ID law’s requirements are not very burdensome for native citizens who have never changed their names, who own or rent their own homes, and who have a complete set of personal documents at the ready. For others, however, renewing a driver’s license may soon involve a detailed probe into personal history.
Floridians who have changed their names are advised that they must “show a clear trail of name changes originating with the birth name to the current name.” To do so, they are asked to bring with them to the drivers license office a court-ordered name change document, a marriage certificate, a divorce decree, or some combination of these and similar papers. As a result, adoptees, married people, divorced people, and transgender people all may be forced to assemble a scrapbook of official documentation.
Applicants will also need two documents that verify their current principal address. Young people who live with their parents, and who therefore lack documents such as a mortgage or lease, must not only get a statement from a parent or legal guardian, but must also bring that parent to the license office. Since I own the Florida homes in which my daughters reside, I may need to be presented as evidence, along with a passport or birth certificate and a social security card, the next time one of them needs to renew her license.
The proof of address requirement makes particularly little sense given that the average American moves 11.7 times over the course of his or her life. Some people have no fixed address. While Florida allows applicants to use a letter from a homeless shelter, transitional service provider, or a halfway house as proof of address, that still only counts as one of the two required documents. Retirees who intend to spend their golden years touring the continent in a recreational vehicle would also do well to avoid Florida, at least when it comes time to stop into the motor vehicles office.
Of course, the REAL ID Act will make life far more complicated for people who live in this country illegally. That fact is not an accident. In the process, it will likely also create significant hurdles for those who have moved here legally but may not be able to immediately provide all of the related documentation. It turns motor vehicles staff into ad hoc immigration officials.
There are also plenty of people who have simply, in the tumble of life, lost key documents. In some cases, this might be the result of a fire or other casualty. In other cases, it might just be the result of outliving a particular piece of paper. That’s something to consider in a state where many residents’ original birth certificates, if any were issued in the first place, might be 80 or 90 years old.
It is not all that clear how forcing a young woman to bring her father along on an otherwise mundane errand, or requiring a transgender man to show up at a government office every few years to explain how he went from being named Donna to being named Don, will make us safer.
If we really want a national identification system, we ought to tie it to genuinely permanent features: retinal images, fingerprints, or DNA. Privacy advocates have long held out such biometrics as the ultimate intrusion. Unlike names and addresses, however, the pattern of your fingerprint is not affected by how many times you divorce and remarry, or whether you have chosen to break ties with your parents.
In at least one place in Florida, biometrics are already in daily use. At Walt Disney World, pass-holders must offer up their hands, rather than just wristbands, to prove their identity as they move in and out of the park.
The REAL ID Act is going to need some real changes before it is worthy of a gold star in my book. Maybe some biometric Disney magic would help.