The vast majority of Mainers may not be prepared for the full enforcement of a federal law regulating state-issued identification.
That could be a rude awakening for them after May 3, 2023, when the federal government stops accepting driver’s licenses and identification not compliant with Real ID for boarding domestic flights.
Only 1 in 10 Mainers has a license or ID that conforms with the standards set under the Real ID Act, according to data provided by the Maine secretary of state’s office. Instead, most Mainers have opted out of Real ID or still have a license issued before the law’s rollout here.
Mainers are showing a greater reluctance to opt into Real ID than other New England states. That ranges from 33 percent in Rhode Island and 38 percent in Massachusetts to 61 percent in Connecticut and 92 percent in Vermont, data provided by those states show.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with enforcing the law, told ABC News in April 2021 that about 43 percent of Americans had a compliant license and that they were opting in at a rate of 0.5 percent to 1 percent a month. Homeland Security did not respond to a request for more recent data.
Shenna Bellows, Maine’s secretary of state, isn’t particularly alarmed by those numbers. What does concern her, however, is that many Mainers may not be aware that their window to make a decision to opt out of Real ID without consequence is rapidly closing.
Real ID emerged in 2005 as one of the key recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report to address national security concerns.
It set national standards to improve the security of state-issued identification to prevent undocumented immigrants and terrorists from obtaining U.S. driver’s licenses. Several of the 9/11 hijackers had obtained state-issued driver’s licenses in the months leading up to the attacks.
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But many states balked at what they saw as federal overreach. And the Maine Legislature in 2007 passed a law prohibiting the state from complying with Real ID amid concerns that it would create a de facto “internal passport.”
That prohibition was repealed in April 2017 when lawmakers passed a bill directing the secretary of state’s office to finally bring Maine into compliance with Real ID.
But those skepticisms of Real ID linger in Maine, where people still harbor serious privacy concerns and wariness of federalizing of state-issued identification, Bellows said.
It’s not just skepticism of Real ID that’s driving the lower opt-in rate.
Maine’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices closed in April and May 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. While that didn’t greatly affect Maine’s ability to issue licenses, there was an uptick in Mainers choosing to renew them online, according to Bellows. Maine can’t issue compliant licenses online because bureau officials need to physically inspect identity-verifying documents and retain digital copies, in addition to taking a license photo compatible with facial-recognition software.
Meanwhile, Mainers who live on the border and who are accustomed to traveling back and forth from the U.S. and Canada may be choosing to opt out because they already have accepted alternatives like passports and passport cards, she said.
Another factor is cost. A compliant noncommercial driver’s license costs $55, compared with $40 for one that’s noncompliant. That’s even more marked for an ID card, which costs $30 to comply with Real ID versus $5 for one that doesn’t.
The law itself may actually be creating barriers for Mainers who want to comply with Real ID but can’t acquire copies of all the documentation it requires. Older Mainers, especially those who were born in the borderland at hospitals that have long since disappeared, can struggle to obtain a certified birth certificate.
“We do see people everyday for whom it’s extraordinarily difficult to secure that documentation,” Bellow said.
Then it can be difficult for women whose last names have changed because of a marriage or divorce to provide everything needed to document that change.
“It’s certainly more challenging for women to secure Real ID than men,” Bellows said.
Maine’s late adoption of Real ID may account for the low rate of compliance, as well. Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner, Wanda Minoli, credited her state’s early adoption of the new standards — Vermont began issuing compliant licenses in 2014 — for its high compliance rate. (Maine only started on July 1, 2019.)
“We planned, adjusted, and communicated to our customers what their options were: a driver’s privilege card, a Real ID, or an enhanced license. We have been communicating this information for eight years now, every time that a customer needs to renew a license and to every customer who is getting a Vermont license for the first time,” Minoli said Monday.
Still, Mainers have had more time to comply because the pandemic prompted Homeland Security to delay Real ID’s final implementation from Oct. 1, 2020, to May 3 of next year, the latest in a long string of delays since the original rollout date of May 11, 2008.