Maine on Thursday became the first state to officially decline to comply with the Real ID Act of 2005, the federal law that critics say lays the foundation for creation of a national identity card.
Both houses of the state Legislature -- voting unanimously in the Senate and 137 to 4 in the House -- approved a resolution rejecting compliance with the act, which requires states to replace their driver’s licenses by May 2008 with forgery-proof scannable cards embedded with private information. The resolution also urges Congress to repeal the ID act.
To obtain the card, which is meant to ensure that the holder is in the U.S. legally, an individual would be required to present a Social Security card, birth certificate, proof of residency and a photo identity document.
All of this information, plus a biometric identifier such as a fingerprint, would be digitally stored in a nationwide database, accessible by federal, state and local government employees.
Privacy advocates argue that putting every driver’s personal information in that database would facilitate identity theft. Shenna L. Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, called it “a real ID nightmare.”
Timothy D. Sparapani, legislative counsel for privacy rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, described the act as “a burden to all kinds of constitutional rights” and said people could find it difficult to provide all of the required documentation. For example, he said, victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina might no longer have their birth certificates.
Congress initially appropriated $100 million to put the system in place nationwide, but officials in Maine estimated that the program could cost $185 million in that state alone. The National Conference of State Legislatures has put the nationwide cost of implementation at about $11 billion.
“The federal government may be willing to burden us with the high costs of a program that will do nothing to make us safer, but it is our job as state legislators to protect the people of Maine from just this sort of dangerous federal mandate,” Maine’s Senate majority leader, Democrat Elizabeth H. Mitchell, said Thursday. “I am proud that this state has led the way in taking a stand against Real ID.”
The law, signed by President Bush in May 2005, grew out of a recommendation by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the government improve its methods of identifying U.S. residents. Several of the Sept. 11 hijackers used fraudulent documents to board airplanes and rent cars.
Under the act, residents of states that refuse to comply with the program will not be allowed to use their driver’s licenses for any activity that requires federally accepted identification, such as boarding an airplane or entering a federal building. Several other states -- including Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Georgia and Washington -- are considering legislation similar to Maine’s, according to the ACLU.
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, Jarrod Agen, did not comment directly on the Maine Legislature’s action, saying only that the purpose of the act was to protect citizens, not make them more vulnerable.
“By enhancing the standards of the license, it adds an extra layer of security against terrorism and use of fake documents to plan or carry out attacks against the United States,” he said. “We are putting extra security features in place to make sure licenses are not fraudulent documents.”
The department is supposed to issue regulations to states on how to implement the system. Agen said his agency was in the final stage of reviewing the guidelines, which are to be released soon.