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Column: The hellish experience of getting your Real ID at the DMV: Long lines are just the beginning

DMV office in Los Angeles
The line stretches outside at the downtown Los Angeles DMV field office last month.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

The line stretched out the door, across the front of the building and around the corner, like a snake entering one of the circles of hell.

I arrived at the Glendale DMV office at 12:54 p.m. to get my Real ID, a document we’ve all gotta have because apparently we’ve been carrying Fake ID.

I don’t know why I bothered noting the time. What’s the point? Time stalls at the DMV. The planet stops spinning. You know in advance that you’re entering a time warp, like your first day in the jury assembly room.

The DMV has always suffered from an incurable disease. Simple procedures take on epic complications. Computers crash. New directors stride in confidently and leave in shame, stricken by the curse. Gov. Gavin Newsom asked tech entrepreneur Steve Gordon to take over last summer, and in a moment of weakness, Gordon said yes.

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Pray for him.

When I moved to a new house three years ago I applied online for a license with my new address. No response. So I tried by mail. Nothing. Finally, when I applied to renew my license last summer, somebody woke up and sent me a new one. That was when I realized I’d have to replace it soon to comply with Real ID.

California is falling far short of targets for getting Real IDs into the hands of residents before the Oct. 1 deadline.

To the surprise of no one, the added burden of registering millions of California drivers for the switch to Real ID is not going well, as Patrick McGreevy reported. Only a quarter of the state’s 27 million drivers have made the switch, and the DMV has to somehow process many millions more by Oct. 1. In fairness to California, other states are way behind too.

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The crush has created nightmares for DMV visitors whether they need a Real ID or not. My friend and colleague Chris Reynolds just wrote about three agonizing trips to the L.A. DMV office to have his daughter take the learner’s permit test. Yeah, it took three trips. In the crowded office, they sat on the floor and waited hours, only to be sent home when computers fritzed out.

When I went to the DMV website to make an appointment on Monday, I couldn’t get one. The website kept telling me no appointments were available for months to come, even though some people had told me they were able to make appointments easily.

Your second option, which the DMV has recommended, is to simply drop in to an office near you without an appointment. You can check wait times on the agency’s website, and when I did, several were running at 1 hour and 40 minutes. No thanks. But the Glendale office said the wait time was just 41 minutes, so I hit the road.

I wasn’t sure I even wanted a Real ID license, and I’m not convinced we need them at all. The federal mandate, an act of Congress going back to 2005, was a response to fears of global terrorism. It aims to provide extra layers of proof as to legal status, but there’s a police state feel to the whole thing. Show us your papers, please. And keep them with you at all times.

You’ll need an original or certified copy of your birth certificate if your passport fails to scan when you apply for a federally compliant Real ID.

Beginning in October, a regular driver’s license won’t be acceptable ID to board domestic flights. You’ll still be able to fly if you flash your passport, but come on. You’d need a passport to fly from Burbank to Oakland?

Outside the Glendale office, at least two dozen people were in front of me in a line that moved so slowly we were passed by caterpillars. Just up ahead of me was a guy who wore a shirt with a big image of Johnny Cash flipping the bird.

The longer we waited, the more I wanted that shirt. It took 40 minutes to get to the front door, and once inside, I was shattered by the realization that my destination was still a long way off. I was only in purgatory. Hell was another 50 feet and 30 minutes away.

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The woman behind me sneezed. The baby in front of me cried, and I wanted to also when I realized this was only the line for getting a number so that we could wait in another line.

I could see the graduates of my line up ahead, about 70 of them, sitting glumly in a staging area waiting for their numbers to be called. They looked like their dogs had just died, or like they were in the bowels of a ship they hoped would sink. Anything to end the misery.

The TSA will require fliers to have a Real ID, passport or military ID, starting Oct. 1. But 99 million Americans don’t have any of these and airlines are doing little to notify fliers.

I knew I didn’t have the time to wait, nor, it turned out, did I have all the voluminous required documents. So they told me to go ahead and fill out an application for my Real ID and return later. I said OK but to be honest I was thinking about moving to Canada.

Ben Evered and his brother Kris told me they had waited two hours only to learn they wouldn’t be able to get the Real ID cards they’d come for. Their driver’s licenses were stolen in a car burglary, so they brought passports and other documents but were told they’d only qualify for regular licenses.

“It’s all a little confusing,” said Ben, who couldn’t comprehend how he was able to qualify for a passport but not a Real ID driver’s license. “It’s Kafkaesque.”

On Tuesday morning, a day after finding no DMV appointments available, suddenly appointments were available in various locations. I guess the latest computer glitch had been resolved. But I wanted to try walking into another office without an appointment, so I checked the DMV site to see what documents would be required.

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The first is proof of identity, and no, your valid, current driver’s license is not acceptable.

Paging Mr. Kafka.

A birth certificate or passport will suffice, as will other documents.

Then you need either a Social Security card, a pay stub with your Social Security number on it or a W-2.

And then you need two proofs of residency, which can include a rental agreement, a tax return or a utility bill.

For a lot of people, these documents can be hard to produce, copy or print, and for others it’s a huge inconvenience to take a day off work or school to put the whole package together and jump through hoops at the DMV.

The fix for those early adopters of the Real ID driver’s license is coming soon to a mailbox near you, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has announced.

Is there not a better way? And with data hacking so commonplace, do we really want to turn our taxes, pay stubs, utility bills and other personal documents over to an agency with a history of computer breakdowns and scandalous incompetence?

I got to the Lincoln Heights DMV office at 10:25 Tuesday morning. The line outside wasn’t as long as the one in Glendale had been. I got through the first stages of the process in a half hour or so. While waiting to jump the next hurdle, I chatted with Kenny Sylvain, a union organizer who said he didn’t want to have to take his passport with him on every domestic flight, so he was opting for the Real ID.

Javier Covarubias and his wife, Delia, had a day off from their jobs — he’s a butcher and she’s a grocery store manager — so they decided to knock out the Real ID chore. Javier said he thought Real ID was “a move toward disenfranchisement,” suggesting that having to produce so many documents reminded him of states that use such tactics to suppress voting rights.

Javier told me that for the past few years, he’s carried his passport with him as a matter of routine. You never know when you might get stopped by ICE, he said, just because of how you look.

It took me about an hour and 15 minutes to complete my application, and I was told my Real ID will arrive by mail within a couple of weeks.

It cost $30, by the way. Multiply that by millions of drivers who will soon be standing in line, and it’s not a bad racket.


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