Real ID was initially supposed to be enforced starting in May 2008, but has been repeatedly delayed amid opposition and low compliance.
A Maine identification card not compliant with Real ID. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine secretary of state's office

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has called on Congress to repeal its “failed” effort to federalize state driver’s licenses.

That comes after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security again delayed final implementation of the controversial Real ID requirements, requiring state driver’s licenses and identification cards to be compliant for use to board domestic flights. Rather than taking effect on May 3, 2023, Mainers and other Americans will have until May 7, 2025, to decide whether to opt into the law.

Only 14 percent of Mainers have opted to comply with the federal Real ID Act, according to the latest figures released this week by the Maine secretary of state’s office. That’s up from just 10 percent in the spring.

But that still trails behind Maine neighbors, including Connecticut and Vermont, where 61 percent and 92 percent of license and identity-card holders, respectively, have opted into Real ID. Maine has the overall lowest compliance rate of any New England state.

“It’s time to end this charade and repeal REAL ID,” Meagan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine, said Tuesday. “This law is unworkable and has been rejected by Maine residents.”

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 sparked a nationwide protest among state legislatures against Real ID, which ultimately forced the federal government to delay its initial enforcement date of May 11, 2008. The continued opposition from states forced that date to be delayed again and again.

But with the specter of their residents facing hurdles to domestic air travel as federal patience wore thin, many states began to move toward compliance in the last years of the Obama administration. Maine’s statutory prohibition was eventually repealed, in April 2017, when lawmakers passed a bill directing the secretary of state’s office to finally bring the state into compliance with Real ID.

Maine started issuing compliant identification on July 1, 2019. Among the requirements for compliance are Bureau of Motor Vehicles officials need to physically inspect identity-verifying documents and retain digital copies, in addition to taking a license photo compatible with facial-recognition software.

Still those initial skepticisms of Real ID linger in Maine, where people still harbor serious privacy concerns and remain wary of federalizing state-issued identification.

“REAL ID doesn’t make us safer. It’s a deeply flawed and costly law that puts privacy at risk. With delay after delay, the federal government admits that the law isn’t feasible. Now is the time for Congress to act and repeal REAL ID,” Sway said.

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.