With the Real ID Act's Limited Deadline Looming, Some States Make Progress Toward Compliance

A tug of war has been quietly raging since the federal government decided states needed to overhaul the identification they issue to their citizens.

The long and the short of the 2005 Real ID Act is fairly simple: Meet the federal identification requirements or your citizens will have a hell of a time with air travel come 2020. 

And while it might sound like a cinch when boiled down to this level, the truth is that many states are still struggling to meet the regulations, filing extension after extension. Meanwhile, others go without an extension and forego compliance altogether.

To date, 26 states/territories have complied, while 26 more fall in various stages of the extension process. Four stand out of compliance, denied an extension by the agency at the heart of the issue, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for opting out of various Real ID Act provisions. 

Tracking States' Progress on Real ID Compliance
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The gist of this federal exercise aims at standardizing state-issued identification, like driver’s licenses, as a means of better securing federal facilities and airports. In 2013, DHS announced its “phased enforcement plan” of the Real ID Act, which resulted from recommendations by the 9/11 Commission, with a seemingly drop-dead deadline of 2020.

According to the DHS, extensions are granted following a review of what the jurisdiction has done to fall in line with the federal law. Agency spokesperson Justine Whelan said in an email to Government Technology that approvals come down to things like the passage of legislation, the implementation of new infrastructure, etc.  

In recent months, there's been a flurry of legislative activity around the Real ID Act in various state houses. On May 16 in Washington, which has a limited extension that allows federal agencies to accept driver's licenses and ID cards until June 6 of this year, Gov. Jay Inslee singed Senate Bill 5008 — a bill that mandates the issuance of federally compliant identification cards by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

While the law may make it official, Washington Department of Licensing spokesperson Christine Anthony said the state has been issuing enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs) since 2008.

“Realistically, we are already issuing EDLs and we are issuing regular licenses,” she said, adding that the new law will hopefully allow the state another extension while they officially iron out how to identify non-enhanced licenses. “We expect to hear in the next couple of weeks whether or not that will be granted."

On March 2 in Oklahoma, which also has a limited DHS extension, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1845, which sets the stage for Real ID-compliant identification to citizens.

And in late April, Maine Gov. Paul LePage codified a bill requiring compliance with the federal requirements after the state was denied an extension waiver in October 2016. Officials are hopeful DHS will grant an extension in light of this legislative progress, Kristen Muszynski, director of communications for the Maine Department of the Secretary of State, told Government Technology

Unlike the state of Washington, Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) needs to update infrastructure in order to store more citizen identity documents and install facial recognition software used in the process.

“That will take some time to get our folks trained up on that software and get that installed," Muszynski said. "We have 13 branches of the BMV and a central office in the state capitol of Augusta, so that will be the bulk of the process getting people up to speed on how to use that equipment, and be sure that we are confirming ID and then to issue the compliant license or non-compliant license based on the customer’s decision.”

The new law repeals an old law, which limited the state’s ability to comply. “In the meantime, we are waiting to hear back from the Department of Homeland Security on our waiver," she added, "because they had intimated that they would issue an additional waiver if we showed progress toward compliance, such as repealing that law.”

Aside from the challenge of training staff to correctly operate new software, the agency will also be tasked with securely storing and maintaining personal identity documents that otherwise would have been returned to the driver’s license applicant. “We have to set up a database that can handle maintaining and retaining all of those documents securely," Muszynski said.

In total, the state is looking at implementation costs of between $1 million and $3 million, and a state-mandated deadline of compliance by July 2019.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.