No matter how you look at it, the Real ID Act is already a headache that could escalate into a migraine for state agencies and citizens.

For the first time in history, the federal government is requiring states to issue drivers' licenses and identification cards according to its own standards. To comply, states must completely redesign the process of licensing drivers in an unprecedented manner. Citizens will need to obtain new licenses with additional forms of ID, which would then be crosschecked by motor vehicle offices, and verified with disparate and often out-of-state agencies.

Predictably the Real ID Act of 2005 elicited skepticism and disbelief across the states. Federal law requires issuance of new licenses to the 245 million current license-holders within five years, and each new card must meet federal document verification and security standards.

States, however, only have until May 2008 to coordinate efforts among agencies; put in place appropriate training, resources and technology; and generate new cards meant to serve as surveillance tools against terrorism.

In response, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) released a report in September to spur Congress and the administration to amend the Real ID Act.

The associations surveyed 47 state motor vehicle agencies nationwide to estimate the cost and impact of the legislation, and found it will likely exert the following costs on states over five years, for a total of $11 billion:

  • $8.48 billion in new enrollment;

  • $1.42 billion in new verification;

  • $1.1 billion in driver's license/ID card design requirements; and

  • $44 million in support.

    In the report, governors, state lawmakers and motor vehicle administrators recommend Congress extend the compliance deadline and provide more federal funding for re-enrollment, verification, driver's license/ID card design and support requirements. "The Department of Homeland Security has yet to issue regulations, and most of the major systems necessary to comply do not exist," the report states.

    Many state leaders were shocked that Congress passed Real ID without a hearing or an up-or-down vote on the bill, said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, and author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.

    Harper expects state leaders will push the issue back to Congress. "Not only will the costs be huge, but impossibility looms large," he said. "Many people may not be able to generate the required documentation, and DMVs will have a very difficult time verifying documents with their sources. If it still exists, how do you prove that a specific document like a birth certificate was produced by an agency 60 years ago?"

    AAMVA Chief Policy Officer Tom Wolfsohn agreed, citing the difficulties citizens will have presenting all required documents and for state employees to process them.

    "If your birth certificate says Elizabeth, and your driver's license says Libby, you'd better pack a lunch," he said. "And you won't be alone. Every person in front of you in line will also be waiting for an original issuance."

    The deadline is not far away.

    "We are less than 20 months from implementation," said William Pound, executive director of the NCSL, "and the necessary electronic technologies are not fully operational."

    Real ID is pressuring states to suspend other projects in preparation for implementation, Pound said, and as a result, is stifling innovation.

    Fast forward to May 2008 and beyond -- what benefits will the act be likely to bring to states? "Even if we did get everybody into a national ID system, the margin of security you would get from it is pretty slim," said Harper. "It's pretty easy to subvert or evade ID-based security. The government will increase its ability to track and control law-abiding people without protecting us much from sophisticated threats."

    For now, however, the requirements are law, so states and citizens alike should probably get their ducks in a row.