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States begin final push for compliance as Real ID deadline nears

WASHINGTON — Motor vehicle agencies across the country are stepping up messaging to residents in hopes they will get their Real ID before May, when full implementation of a federal law is set to take effect at US airports.

Some jurisdictions, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, have made significant progress in rolling out the Real ID-compliant card, generally identifiable by a star in the upper-right corner. But the most recent federal data indicates many states are lagging and not close to ready.

Beginning May 3, the only driver’s licenses or state-issued ID that will be accepted for boarding commercial flights will be those that meet the federal Real ID requirements. That date — barring another extension — would mark the end of a 14-year delay but could prompt confusion among noncompliant air travelers, who would be turned away from boarding domestic aircraft.

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The law, which is intended to prevent identity fraud, sets minimum standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and IDs. Applicants are required to provide proof of identity and legal US residency to obtain the new ID. Enforcement at federal buildings and military bases began in 2014.

DMVs across the country are allowing residents to renew licenses and IDs as early as a year before they expire. Others are launching campaigns alerting residents of the May deadline — sending electronic and paper messages to those whose licenses or IDs aren’t compliant — while partnering with airports and the Transportation Security Administration to increase signage.

Some travel groups worry that the Real ID compliance rate is too low and that, come May 3, hundreds of thousands of Americans who use their state-issued ID could be turned away from airport checkpoints. The TSA accepts other forms of identification, such as a US passport or military ID, but none are as ubiquitous as a standard driver’s license.

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As of May this year, 137 million Real IDs had been issued nationwide, representing 49 percent of state-issued IDs in circulation, according to federal data obtained through the American Travel Association. At the time, the compliance rate had been increasing about 0.5 percentage points each month, the data shows.

“We really do want Real ID to succeed, but 50 percent uptake is really not a success. It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Tori Emerson Barnes, the travel association’s executive vice president for policy. “They are going to really have to look hard at further delay if they don’t improve the numbers over the next few months. We just simply can’t have 50 percent of the population showing up at the airport and being turned away.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Real ID implementation, did not respond to multiple requests for comment and data about the compliance rate. TSA referred questions to DHS.

While compliance nationwide hovers near half, Maryland and the District of Columbia have made more progress in recent years. In Maryland, 89 percent of licensed drivers and ID cardholders are Real ID-compliant. In the nation’s capital, 93 percent of residents with a driver’s license or identification have a Real ID.

Other states, such as Virginia, give license holders the choice of a standard or Real ID, which the travel industry and some federal officials say creates confusion. About 2.7 million Virginians have a Real ID, accounting for about 43 percent of state-issued credentials, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

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Congress passed the Real ID Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Eighteen of the 19 hijackers had obtained state IDs, some fraudulently.

The law originally was to take effect in 2008, but the program has been delayed repeatedly. Some states were critical of the law when it passed, calling it an unfunded mandate, but their pleas to DHS and Congress for modifications were unsuccessful.

All 50 states, the District and the five permanently inhabited US territories have committed to complying with Real ID requirements, federal officials say. DHS has extended the implementation multiple times, most recently postponing an Oct. 1, 2021, deadline to May 3 of next year to give states more time amid pandemic-related lags at motor vehicle branches.

Some requirements have made visits to the DMV more complicated or time-consuming. Many people have struggled with obtaining the required documents, such as original birth certificates and Social Security cards.

Federal regulations also require visiting a motor vehicle branch in person to complete the application process, although some states allow applicants to begin online before their visit.

Barnes said DHS shared data with the travel industry this spring that shows 102 million state-issued credentials in the United States were noncompliant and about 39 million have as many as four years left before expiration.

Some states that delayed issuing Real IDs have seen their progress hindered by the pandemic. California, Mississippi, and Virginia began issuing them in 2018. Maine began in 2019. By contrast, the District began in 2014 and the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration launched Real ID licenses and identification cards in 2016.

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In the District, about 46,000 residents still need to convert their credential to a Real ID, according to DMV records. The city launched an education campaign this fall that includes monthly mailings and email notices to residents who haven't updated their ID.

Maryland MVA administrator Chrissy Nizer said the state is reaching out to about a half-million residents who are not in compliance.

“For folks who are not yet compliant, we want to continue to reach out to them and make sure that they are aware, especially if they plan on traveling,” she said. “We have a wide availability of appointments. There’s really no difficulty in getting it taken care of.”

Nizer said the additional time granted last year helped to ensure a higher rate of compliance amid pandemic-related challenges. The MVA operates on an appointment system, which she said ensures most customer wait times are about 15 minutes. Marylanders also can renew up to a year in advance without additional fees.

In Virginia, the DMV has issued Real IDs on a voluntary basis since fall 2018 while allowing residents to continue obtaining a standard credential with a “Federal Limits Apply” note in the right corner, instead of the Real ID star.

DMV spokeswoman Jessica Cowardin said the state has exceeded its initial Real ID enrollment projection of 2.6 million. In the past year, the Virginia DMV has issued more than 500,000 Real IDs, she said.

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Cowardin said Virginians who want to get a Real ID before the May deadline should visit dmvnow.com before visiting a local branch and be ready with the required documents.

“We expect our offices will be busy in April and May with last-minute Real ID customers,” Cowardin said.