The state of North Carolina recently sent a postcard telling me it was time to renew my driver’s license and upgrade it to a federally accepted Real ID. That’s the license marked with the gold star you’ll need starting in October 2020 to board a plane, enter military bases and many federal buildings. You’ll also need it when you make one of your frequent trips to a nuclear power plant.
Last week, I tried to comply. I hailed a Lyft ride and went to the driver’s license office of Avent Ferry Road in Raleigh near N.C. State. When I walked in, every seat in the waiting area was full and people were lined along the walls. It looked like it would take a couple of hours. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, the line actually started in another room, also full of people.
The natural response is to blame the DMV. And no doubt the agency’s tendency to be understaffed and bureaucratic is contributing to the delays. But the the problem isn’t confined to North Carolina. California’s and Kansas’ DMV offices have been seeing long lines. Other states have yet get their turn with this headache.
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If you need something to think about while waiting in a North Carolina DMV office, don’t blame the agency. Blame the clumsy, rushed law behind the delays. For in many ways Real ID would be better termed Real BI, as in Real Bad Idea.
In 2005, amid the security fever brought on by the 9/11 terror attacks, the Real ID Act was put through Congress as part of a larger spending bill. The change was recommended by the 9/11 Commission as a way to raise the minimum identification standards for obtaining a driver’s license or official identification card.
To get the Real ID driver’s license, you need to show up at a DMV office and provide documentation proving your age and identity, your Social Security number and your North Carolina residency. People not born in the U.S. will need to prove they are in the country legally. Some of this documentation can be challenging to find. Do you have a passport or an official copy of your birth certificate? How about a Social Security card or a copy of your income tax filing? Some people wait hours in line only to reach the counter and discover they are missing a required document.
These problems shouldn’t be a surprise. The law was supposed to take effect in 2008, but states said they lacked the funds and resources to comply. Now, even with the effective date has been pushed back to 15 years, the Real ID Act’s requirements are still overwhelming state DMV offices.
The ACLU created a website realnightmare.org on which it presents seven reasons for opposing the law. One of them is it “will mean higher fees, long lines, and bureaucratic nightmares for individuals.”
The waiting would be worth it if it makes us safer, but the ACLU argues that Real ID puts us — or least our privacy — at risk. It creates a national ID card that functions like an in-country passport that “will be used to track and control individuals’ movements and activities.”
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the national ACLU, said, “If Congress wants to create a national ID card, then let them do it. This is sort of a backdoor way of doing the same thing..”
Meanwhile, the identification documents you submit will be scanned and stored in a network of connected DMV data bases. That will create what the ACLU website calls a “one-stop shop for identity thieves.”
Stanley said there are sensible arguments for making driver’s licenses a more genuine proof of identity, but Real ID was rushed through without enough review by security experts and privacy advocates.
So now Americans are standing in line to put their privacy into the balky gears of the 50 DMVs. We’ll see what happens.