Playing chicken over Real ID can mess with Mainers’ lives

In a spasm of fear, the United States passed a lot of bad public policy in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9-11.

One of those was called Real ID. The idea behind the policy was to strengthen the security of state driver’s licenses, which have become de facto ID cards for travel, commerce and hundreds of other uses.

The implementation — and the impact on actual security — is questionable, even if the intent was sound.

Right now, Maine’s driver’s license are out of compliance with the requirements of Real ID. And that’s beginning to cause problems for people.

In a recent example, Rep. Chellie Pingree sent a letter to the Air Force, urging it to accept Maine drivers’ licenses for identification so Maine veterans could access a health clinic at Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire.

Some 500 Maine veterans who receive care at the Community Based Outpatient Clinic on the base were recently notified that, after Feb. 1, their Maine driver’s license and VA health care ID will no longer allow them access to the base, Pingree pointed out in a press release about the problem.

“I’ve heard from many veterans who are concerned about not being able to see their doctors when this change goes into effect. They don’t want to have to jump through yet another bureaucratic hoop to get the health care they have earned — and I don’t think they should have to,” Pingree said in the press release. “Thankfully, it is within the Air Force’s authority to make an exception for veterans like them. After hearing about how these veterans will be affected, I hope the Air Force acts quickly to resolve the issue.”

Through no fault of their own, these veterans are caught in a struggle between the state and the federal governments, and Pingree is correct that the Air Force should use its authority to ensure that these men and women who have served our country aren’t hurt.

The impact of Maine being out of compliance with the federal law will only grow as more restrictions are placed on when our driver’s licenses can be used for identification.

As the Portland Press Herald reported this week, in January 2018, Maine driver’s licenses will no longer be accepted by the Transportation Security Administration for boarding an airplane.

How harshly TSA will enforce the law is hard to predict. But you can be assured that Maine travelers relying on a driver’s license will face extra security hurdles, possible delays and unnecessary hassles.

I was an opponent of Real ID and was part of the negotiations with the federal government during my time in the Baldacci administration when this issue flared.

At that time, the George W. Bush administration was pressuring states to continue to implement Real ID and took a hard line on states that failed to comply. For a while, Maine was part of a block of states that refused on privacy and efficacy grounds.

One by one, the other states folded and Maine was left alone, and the federal government was prepared to make an example out of us. Working with Democrats and Republicans, we adopted fixes to get past the crisis over opposition, particularly from civil libertarians.

Once again, Maine finds itself among just five states that aren’t following the law.

Former secretary of state and current state Sen. Bill Diamond said he will introduce legislation to bring Maine into compliance.

“The impact of this is considerable,” Diamond told the Press Herald.

Diamond is correct. Personally, I’m making sure that my family’s passports are all renewed now, before we need them. Just in case. And while I was at the Post Office earlier this week, I met a young man getting his first passport. He was concerned his driver’s license wouldn’t work to get on a plane.

BDN illustration by George Danby.

BDN illustration by George Danby.

A first-time passport application costs $135. That’s a lot of money.

Matt Dunlap, the current secretary of state, opposed Real ID and its implementation. He’s been consistent throughout, including during the last standoff with the federal government. His argument is that Congress needs to overhaul the law and make sure that personal data is protected and that the new requirements actually fight terrorism.

I agree.

But given the premium that President-elect Trump has placed on security and the fact that the vast majority of states are in compliance, I don’t think Mainers can count on much progress or help from Washington.

Playing chicken with Real ID could prompt political leaders in Washington to solve the problems with the law. But more likely it means that Mainers who count on their driver’s license as their primary ID could face problems going about their everyday lives.

For people who hate Real ID, this is an argument of principle and practicality. They think it’s a bad law, poorly implemented and ineffective. But right now, the argument is esoteric.

When the first veteran gets turned away from a clinic or families get stranded trying to visit grandma in Florida, the theoretical debate will become real and the public will be outraged. It’ll reinforce the notion that government can’t even get the most basic things right.

Maine should get started now and avoid the headache that’s coming.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at