ID Law Stirs Passionate Protest in N.H.

Jim Johnson, center, and Lauren Canario protested the federal government's new driver's license rules at the New Hampshire statehouse in April by running a fake checkpoint and demanding people's identification.
Jim Johnson, center, and Lauren Canario protested the federal government's new driver's license rules at the New Hampshire statehouse in April by running a fake checkpoint and demanding people's identification. (By Preston Gannaway -- Concord Monitor Via Associated Press)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006

CONCORD, N.H. -- Those concerned about a new federal plan to overhaul the issuing of driver's licenses have two fairly distinct ways of showing it. One of them involves task forces, letter-writing and groups such as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The other involves protesters dressed like Nazis and politicians quoting Patrick Henry.

Anyone familiar with the revolution-tinged politics of New Hampshire can guess which one is happening here.

"The war on our civil liberties is actually begun," New Hampshire state Rep. Neal M. Kurk (R) told his colleagues recently, borrowing from Henry's famous "Liberty or Death" speech to condemn the license plan and the U.S. government in place of the British crown. He continued: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?"

Now, this state legislature is poised to formally reject the new license rules, which are aimed at screening out terrorists and illegal immigrants, but have been criticized as a logistical nightmare and the beginning of a national ID card. As a political circus has unfolded here in Concord, everyone, including libertarians, evangelical Christians and state bureaucrats, has been paying attention.

"Everybody's watching," said Jim Harper at the Cato Institute in Washington, who objects to the new rules as a federal intrusion into personal privacy. His hope: "Even one state refusing to participate basically will cause the system to crumble."

The controversy in New Hampshire surrounds a federal law called the Real ID Act, which was approved last year after it was tacked on to a bill funding the war in Iraq and relief for tsunami victims. Its principal backer, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), said he wanted to close the kinds of loopholes that allowed some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers to obtain official identification.

The bill requires states to check whether driver's license applicants are in the country legally, and to require documents showing their birth date, Social Security number and home address. The act also requires that states find a way to verify that the documents are valid.

The deadline is May 2008. If states cannot meet the new requirements by then, the bill says, their licenses may not be accepted as identification at airport security screenings, federal buildings and nuclear plants.

Groups of state-level officials have protested that the act requires sophisticated computer networks that don't exist now and that meeting the deadline could be overwhelmingly expensive or simply impossible.

For now, their criticism has been measured while they wait for the Department of Homeland Security to work out key details of the license plan. It's still unclear, for instance, whether drivers who have a license already will have to be rescreened, or whether there will need to be a single federal computer database containing everyone's license information.

New Hampshire, though, is not the waiting kind of state.

In January, several legislators here introduced a bill that called the Real ID measure "contrary and repugnant" to both the U.S. and New Hampshire constitutions, and vowed that "New Hampshire shall not participate in a national identification card system."


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