Va. Braces for Driver's License Changes

Gov. Kaine's new budget has not set aside money for the Real ID Act.
Gov. Kaine's new budget has not set aside money for the Real ID Act. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

RICHMOND -- Virginia officials are struggling over how to implement and pay for new federal regulations that will require the state's 5.5 million drivers to wait in line to get a driver's license in what is expected to be a lengthy process similar to getting a passport.

Some states are refusing to comply with the strict regulations. Others are asking Congress to change or repeal the costly program. But in Virginia, a state where nearly half of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers got their driver's licenses, many lawmakers generally welcome the safeguards designed to help prevent terrorist attacks and reduce the number of licenses granted to illegal immigrants.

"The vast majority of 9/11 terrorists used Virginia licenses," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said. "I think that's why you haven't seen as much of a push back."

Maryland lawmakers introduced bills this year calling for a repeal of the regulations, but none passed. The D.C. Council passed a resolution supporting a repeal this year.

Virginia is one of a handful of states that have set aside money to start implementing the law by the May deadline. But the state will remain at a standstill until the Homeland Security Department releases long-promised guidelines creating licenses with digital photographs, signatures and machine-readable features such as bar codes.

"We've been on hold waiting for the federal government to make up its mind," said D.B. Smit, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. "There's an uncertainty about it. It's a very anxious time for us."

Under the regulations, drivers would have to bring proof of citizenship or legal presence and proof of Virginia residency to the local motor vehicles office. Workers would verify the information before mailing the licenses to the drivers.

State officials said they probably will not require everyone who has a license to come in at the same time for the new license. Instead, drivers will go in when they are scheduled to renew, or every five years. Still, this could lead to longer-than-usual waits because many people renew by mail, Internet or phone. Of about 888,000 renewals a year, 232,000 people do not go to DMV offices.

Across the nation, opposition to the regulations is building from a diverse coalition of organizations and governments that worry about a loss of privacy, a hefty price tag and the treatment of those who might have trouble producing necessary documents, including immigrants, the elderly and the disabled. About two-thirds of states have passed or are debating legislation opposing the law, called the Real ID Act.

"Real ID is, in fact, a real nightmare," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It was a bad idea from the very beginning. . . . It bowed to the wishes of a few powerful members of Congress."

Congress approved the bill after it was established that the Sept. 11 hijackers acquired, legitimately or by fraud, IDs that allowed them to board planes, rent cars and apartments and open bank accounts. Seven of the 19 hijackers obtained documents in Virginia, where terrorists hijacked a plane at Dulles International Airport and crashed it into the Pentagon.

Supporters say the law will make it more difficult for potential terrorists to move through the country.

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