Unreal ID

January 22, 2008

It appears Maryland will sit out the state rebellion against the federal Real ID program. Gov. Martin O'Malley's announcement last week that the Motor Vehicle Administration will comply with the costly and controversial program is unfortunate but not entirely unexpected.

As recently as last month, MVA officials had been floating the idea of a two-tiered approach to driver's licenses that would create one that met federal security standards and one that didn't require so-called proof of legal presence. But no doubt the negative reaction given New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's similar proposal (from which he eventually backed down) had something to do with it.

So here's the consequence: By 2010, current and future driver's license holders will have to provide far more elaborate proof of identity and residency. For most people, that means original birth certificates and Social Security cards (not just numbers or copies) and waiting in long lines at local MVA offices, which will be swamped.

Illegal immigrants won't necessarily stop driving, but they likely won't be licensed, trained or have car insurance - bad news for the rest of us. Their lives, as members of the country's 11 million undocumented underclass, are just going to get a little worse.

Such a sacrifice might seem acceptable if it ensured the nation's safety, but it doesn't. Surely any terrorist capable of sneaking into the country is equally adept at forging a birth certificate from one of the 6,000 agencies that produce them. And, of course, the next Timothy McVeigh will suffer no particular hardship.

Thus, a Maryland driver's license will become little more than a national ID card and databank done on the cheap (MVA customer agents earn a starting salary around $23,000). Some states have objected to this program - seven have refused to comply, and 17 have passed legislation condemning it.

Officials defend Mr. O'Malley's decision as a realistic response to the circumstances. Besides, they point out, the recently published Real ID regulations are less onerous than expected. They are unlikely to raise the price of a driver's license more than $5 to $15 each, and drivers over 50 have until 2017 before they need to comply.

That may be true, but such improvements are slight at best. Perhaps the program may yet be undone by the White House's next occupant, particularly if enough states continue to band together against it. Maryland will just have to watch from the sidelines.

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