Commentary

Why REAL ID is ‘Dangerous ID’

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In a heated legislative session where many important issues divide us, there is one that I thought would unite all Mainers of every political stripe – the assault on every citizen’s most precious right to privacy in the form of the federal REAL ID law.

This is the law you’ve read about where your Maine driver’s license will no longer be accepted at federal government buildings because Maine ‘hasn’t complied’ with the federal law’s requirements.

When I first started talking to my constituents about REAL ID, their initial responses were along the lines of, ‘Why can’t you folks just sort that out, it seems pretty simple?’ When I start telling them the hoops they are going to have to jump through to get one of these REAL ID driver’s licenses, their eyes start to widen and they say ‘How come that isn’t being covered in the news?’ I have no answer for that one.

To get your REAL ID license you will have to have your photo taken with facial recognition software, and documents such as your certified birth certificate and original social security card will be scanned into a database at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where it will be kept for seven years. Given the present state of cyber security, we cannot assure anyone that this new database will be secure.

Worse, REAL ID creates an interlinked network where other states’ motor vehicle departments, and the federal government, have access to our Bureau of Motor Vehicle’s database. At any time, with just a rule change, the federal Department of Homeland Security could link all 50 states’ databases and, voila, a national identity database, with no Congressional action required.

For more than a decade, Maine’s political leaders of both major parties have been united in their opposition to the REAL ID law, and have refused to sacrifice our citizens’ right to privacy from the overreaching federal government. Past legislatures have resisted turning our state’s driver’s licenses into virtual national identity cards. REAL ID was a bad law when Congress passed it in 2005 (attached to a must-fund Iraq war funding bill), and it is still a bad law.

After more than a decade of legislatures telling our Congressional delegation that Maine would not comply with this law, there has been no progress in Washington. Maine kept getting “waivers” from the feds as we waited (in vain apparently) for Congress to act.

Fast forward to January when the Department of Homeland Security started denying our people and businesses access to federal installations with Maine driver’s licenses as identification, and announced that next year Mainers won’t be able to use their Maine driver’s licenses to board commercial airlines. Washington turned up the heat on states like Maine that have refused to comply.

Now, we in Augusta are struggling with how to help our constituents and deal with a law nearly everyone admits to hating. It’s the proverbial rock and a hard place. After Thursday’s Senate action where all but four Senators voted to pass LD 306, REAL ID is speeding its way to a Bureau of Motor Vehicles counter near you.

Tuesday it will come to the House, where I, and a handful of others, will implore our colleagues to stop the capitulation, but I am not hopeful, unless we hear from concerned citizens over the weekend.

Because I serve on the Transportation Committee, which would be hearing the bill, I started to get emails more than a month ago from citizens from all across Maine. A number of people who wrote to us expressed deep concern about a ‘liberal conspiracy’ to use REAL ID as a smokescreen for a national gun registry database. I am not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, but the more I learned about REAL ID the more I came to see that one man who wrote to me calling it “Dangerous ID” might be seriously on to something.

Liberals I talk to are equally concerned about REAL ID’s real threats to our personal liberties, and everyone is concerned about privacy and the security of our most personal identifying documents.

My colleagues on Transportation amended the bill to give you a chance to “opt out” so you can choose to have a REAL ID license, or a regular one. I know they sincerely think this is a workable solution. That is the version that passed in the Senate on Thursday.

But don’t try to get on a plane with the regular Maine license; you will need a passport or a passport card. And here’s the kicker – the same department who oversees this monster of a law can at any time change the rules and decree that there won’t be any more “opting out.”

So I proposed an amendment to the bill. Instead of complying, my amendment spends the same amount of money as it would cost to implement REAL ID, but instead purchases passports and passport cards for anyone that needs one. It gets essentially the same result without the headaches and dangers of REAL ID.

Only four Senators bought the idea, three Democrats, Senators Bellows, Carson and Chipman, and a Republican, Senator Brakey. In the floor debate on Thursday, Bellows, Brakey and Chipman implored their Senate colleagues to consider another path. They were met with basically, ‘we have no choice.’

Even our governor, who has never hesitated to tell the federal government exactly what he thinks, and says he also hates this law, says it’s too late, we no longer have a choice.

I will not accept that we have no choice. We do have a choice. The last time I looked, all our desks in the House and Senate chambers have red and green buttons on them that show that not only do we have a choice, choosing wisely for our constituents is in fact our responsibility.

The governor can choose to sign or not sign the bills we send. All of us whom you have entrusted with this responsibility can and will have a ‘choice.’ We can choose to protect your rights to privacy, or we can allow ourselves to be bullied by the federal government.

There is another path – we can protect your rights to privacy and your ability to conduct your personal lives and run your businesses. I guess there are two questions you need to ask yourselves: Do you care about your privacy? And how much do you trust the federal government?

About Gay Grant

Representative Gay Grant (D - Gardiner) is serving her third term in the Maine House of Representatives. She represents District 83, which includes the communities of Farmingdale and Gardiner. She owns a small business, The Write Way, where she works with Maine non-profit organizations, schools and businesses as a grant writer and writing consultant. She is also a professional singer and author. Grant and her husband, Ron, are both Maine natives and graduates of Gardiner Area High School and the University of Maine system. They have two grown children and live in South Gardiner.

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