Why there’s so much confusion about REAL ID and PA driver’s licenses at airports

Millions of Pennsylvanians are expected to have invalid licenses in 2020.

Real ID story
DHS.gov/Flickr via Frankieleon
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Don’t worry too much about the signs in airports warning how a Pennsylvania ID won’t get you onto an airplane in January 2018. For one thing, Pennsylvania just got another extension Thursday. Your Pennsylvania ID will work for at least another year.

So you’re good for now. But you should worry later.

The Department of Homeland Security is mandating all states be compliant with its REAL ID licensing program by October 2020. It will give no further extensions. Pennsylvania, after nearly a decade of flouting the requirement, began working toward compliance in May and expects to offer REAL ID licenses by spring 2019. Still, the state expects nearly 90 percent of residents won’t have the requisite driver’s license to get them aboard a plane when that day finally comes in 2020.

“These dates are here. They’re real,” said Pa. Rep. Ed Neilson of Northeast Philly. “And I don’t believe we’re doing enough.”

Neilson isn’t satisfied with the REAL ID bill overwhelmingly passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May.

What the law says

Though it allows for Pennsylvania to begin the process of complying with the Department of Homeland Security’s REAL ID demands for the state’s driver’s licenses and ID cards, it simply gives Pennsylvania residents the option to get a REAL ID. The REAL ID is a driver’s license or identification card that meets security criteria set by the DHS shortly after 9/11. PennDOT will make the cards available in March 2019. REAL ID allows for the collecting of information in a central database and, according to the federal government, greater security.

REAL ID will require most Pennsylvanians to make an in-person trip to their nearest PennDOT center, and includes a fee that has yet to be set, followed by standard renewal fees in the future.  Some residents may oppose the new IDs because of cost, others out of fear of turning information over to DHS. It was this latter fear that led Pennsylvania in 2012 to pass a law with bipartisan support that prevented Pennsylvania from working toward REAL ID compliance. It wasn’t reversed until the new legislation was passed in May.

Millions missing out

Whether cost or concern about the federal government keeps people away, PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services Kurt Myers said he anticipates only 1.3 million of the approximately 10.6 million people who have either driver’s licenses or ID cards in the state will obtain a REAL ID by October 2020. That leaves 9 million people who would either need a passport to board an airplane or enter a military facility, or risk being turned away. Another 1.2 million people are expected to get REAL ID after the October 2020 deadline.

“I think it’s important the customer has a choice as to whether or not they want to get a REAL ID or maintain an existing driver’s license,” Myers said.

PennDOT has plans for raising awareness about REAL ID by sending mailers to driver’s license holders starting next spring. It will also coordinate social media and other marketing campaigns.

But its efforts have been criticized by advocates for REAL ID. The bill passed in May required PennDOT to produce a report for the General Assembly within 90 days. It responded with a two-page report that didn’t satisfy Neilson or REAL ID proponent Brian Zimmer, who has long been speaking with Pennsylvania legislators about the subject.

“It’s just got nothing in it,” said Zimmer, president of Keeping Identities Safe/Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License.

Neilson said making REAL ID optional has caused more confusion for a process few people understand and many know nothing about. He’s heard of constituents who don’t understand why they can’t get one until 2019 and others who still have no idea what REAL ID is.

“People are going to get hurt by it,” Neilson said. “There’s no doubt someone’s going to get hurt.”

Topics

Politics, Transit

People

Ed Neilson

Organizations

PennDOT