Real Controversy over REAL ID

by Rep. Bryce Edgmon

Early this session House and Senate “companion” bills—HB74 and SB34—were introduced on behalf of the governor in an effort to bring Alaska into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act. Passed in 2005 following recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report, these federal standards for driver’s licenses and other forms of state ID are designed to safeguard against identity theft and guarantee that the holder of an ID is whom they say they are.

If only it were as simple as that.

REAL ID has been a magnet for controversy in Alaska and across the U.S., so much that even with a dozen years having passed since the law was created, only a handful of states are considered in full compliance. This is largely because of concerns people have over their privacy and the security of the information they are required to turn over in order to be issued a license or ID that’s compliant with the federal law. As a rural legislator, I am also uneasy about the practical impacts this program may hold for Alaskans in bush communities.

Despite the persistence of such worries, the Department of Homeland Security, which administers the act, is cracking down. An “Enforcement Timeline” has been set, with the goal of having every state in the Union toeing the line by October 1st of 2020.

Between now and then, enforcement will be incremental, with a series of short-term waivers available to states to allow them additional time to comply with the act. As long as the feds are convinced that a state is making a good-faith effort toward compliance (through, for example, passing legislation like HB74 and SB34), these waivers will extend the time allowed to meet some of the enforcement timeline milestones.

An important such milestone is drawing near. Unless the state is granted another compliance extension, Alaskans will not be allowed to enter a military base using their existing state drivers’ licenses after June 6th. This would pose problems for the thousands of civilian Alaskans employed at places like Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, near Anchorage, or Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks.

A deadline with even broader consequences looms on January 22nd, 2018. After that date, TSA will no longer let someone board a commercial aircraft if they present a non-compliant license or ID from a state that hasn’t been granted an extension. (Note that most Alaska regional airlines, such as PenAir, whose flights do not require TSA screening, will not be affected.)

Following October 1st, 2020, no more extensions will be given, period.

Membership has its Privileges

So why hasn’t HB74 or SB34 zoomed through the Legislature this session? Some people fear that the REAL ID Act creates a national ID card and helps set up a “surveillance state,” with Big Brother tracking our every move. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says this is not so. Issuance of licenses and IDs is still controlled by each state; no new federal database is created; and the federal law itself states that no federal agencies can access the data that states exchange for ID verification purposes.

Opponents of the program also worry about the risk of a breach in the multi-state driver’s license database used to verify that an applicant doesn’t hold a license in another state and is not a “problem driver” listed on U.S. Transportation’s National Driver Registry. DHS says that the state-to-state data service was established decades ago and has long been used by all the states without a breach. Participating states set the requirements for the system and control access to the data. As mentioned above, federal agencies cannot access it. And the system uses end-to-end encryption and is not connected to the Internet.

Nonetheless, after about five SB34 hearings in the Senate and ten HB74 hearings in the House, it appears that stakeholders have not been easily won over. This troubles officials from the Department of Homeland Security, who have stated that the legislation needs to pass this session for Alaska to demonstrate the level of commitment to compliance necessary to be granted a waiver extension ahead of the next enforcement phase.

OTHER ID

Whether or not the state becomes compliant, Alaskans would not be forced to obtain a REAL ID. But opting out on either a statewide or an individual basis seems to come with hassles. For one thing, your driver’s license would read, “Not for official purposes.” You would still be able to access commercial air travel using a variety of alternative forms of ID, but most of them are not exactly commonplace or convenient to obtain. A U.S. passport, for example, might not be all that hard to come by, but the cost is close to five times that of a driver’s license. Other OTHER IDs include such rarities as Airline-issued IDs, Merchant Mariner’s credentials, HSPD-12 PIV cards—whatever on Earth they are—and Canadian provincial driver’s license. Hmm. Not too handy.

TRIBAL ID

In meetings with DHS officials, I have been told that a photo ID issued by a federally recognized tribe will be accepted by TSA for commercial flights. This may be a silver lining for rural residents who belong to a tribe that provides one. I have requested of DHS that they confirm this policy in writing for my office.

Compliance Logistics for Rural Alaska

If HB74 or SB34 passes and over the next few years nearly every adult in the state might want to obtain a REAL ID, what does that mean for Alaskans in communities hundreds of air miles from the nearest DMV? State officials have told me that DMV will make it as convenient as possible—even going village to village, if necessary. Beyond that assurance, details are sparse.

So how should we proceed? That’s exactly what lawmakers are trying to determine as they continue to consider the two bills before them. HB74 rests in the House Finance Committee, and SB34 is in Senate Finance. HB74 is scheduled for a hearing next Wednesday. With the first federal deadline just weeks away, it is still impossible to predict whether there is support in the Legislature to make it law.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon serves as Speaker of the House for the Alaska State Legislature.

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