The more than 90 percent of Mainers not compliant with Real ID will have another two years before they face more difficulties with domestic air travel.
A Maine driver's license that is compliant with Real ID. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine secretary of state's office

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Monday delayed the final deadline for compliance with a federal law regulating state-issued identification until 2025.

That will come as a reprieve for states like Maine that have seen a low compliance rate among their residents.

“DHS continues to work closely with U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories to meet REAL ID requirements,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas said Monday. “This extension will give states needed time to ensure their residents can obtain a REAL ID-compliant license or identification card. DHS will also use this time to implement innovations to make the process more efficient and accessible. We will continue to ensure that the American public can travel safely.”

Mainers, and residents of other states, faced a deadline to get a Real ID-compliant driver’s license before May 3, 2023, when the federal government planned to stop accepting noncompliant identification for boarding domestic flights. Noncompliant identification already are not accepted for accessing certain federal facilities, such as military bases and the U.S. Mint.

This latest delay, the third since the COVID-19 pandemic began, means Mainers now have until May 7, 2025, to decide whether to opt into Real ID with minimal consequences.

Only 14 percent of Mainers have a license or ID that conforms with the standards set under the Real ID Act, up from just 10 percent in the spring, according to data provided to the Bangor Daily News on Monday 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 have shown a greater reluctance to opt into Real ID than other New England states. Compliance rates range from 33 percent in Rhode Island, 38 percent in Massachusetts and 47 percent in New Hampshire to 61 percent in Connecticut and 92 percent in Vermont, data those states provided to the BDN earlier this year show.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows called the extension “welcome news” given the state’s low opt-in rate, saying it will give Mainers more time to decide whether to get compliant identification.

Real ID emerged in 2005 as one of the key recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report to address national security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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.

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 eventually 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 remain wary of federalizing state-issued identification. It’s not just skepticism of Real ID that’s driving the lower opt-in rate.

While the pandemic-related closures of Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices didn’t greatly affect Maine’s ability to issue licenses, there was an uptick in Mainers choosing to renew them online, Bellows told the BDN earlier this year. 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, Bellows said in April.

Another factor is cost. A compliant noncommercial driver’s license costs $55, compared with $30 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.

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, has 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.

Mainers who decide to opt out can still use accepted alternatives, such as a U.S. passport or passport card, to prove their identities in order to board domestic flights.