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Allow flexibility for driver’s licenses in Real ID law

Michael Chertoff, former homeland security secretary, spoke at a news conference on REAL ID on Jan. 11, 2008, in Washington, D.C.
Michael Chertoff, former homeland security secretary, spoke at a news conference on REAL ID on Jan. 11, 2008, in Washington, D.C. Kevin Wolf/AP

In the highly politicized debate around government-sanctioned identification cards, inclusion and fairness should be the priority. Flexibility in accommodating tougher federal ID requirements is the underlying principle in the Legislature’s 11th-hour amendment to bring Massachusetts driver’s licenses closer into compliance with the federal Real ID Act, the law created after 9/11 to increase security standards for ID cards. The Legislature’s provision is an improvement upon Governor Baker’s proposal, which is too restrictive and would exclude many who ordinarily would qualify for driver’s licenses .

Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005, in response to concerns that driver’s licenses had become a de facto form of identification but lacked sufficient safeguards. It required states to take steps that have nothing to do with driving, like verifying the legal status of applicants and adding security markers to prevent tampering. It establishes that all Real ID-compliant cardholders must present evidence of lawful status, such as a US birth certificate, a green card, or a valid visa.


Massachusetts remains one of a handful of noncompliant states, and that has created problems for some residents whose state-issued driver’s licenses were rejected as identification in federal buildings. Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security granted the state a second year-long waiver, which expires in October. But by 2020, all state-issued credentials used to board a plane or enter secure federal buildings must be REAL-ID compliant.

As a practical matter, simply enacting Real ID in Massachusetts would needlessly exclude many residents whose driving skills may be perfectly fine. The Legislature’s amendment would create a two-tiered program for issuing driver’s licenses in the Commonwealth: one keeping the existing process, and the other establishing a new, enhanced system that would issue cards meeting the stricter Real ID requirements. It represents a reasonable solution that aligns the state with federal rules, while also protecting access to driver’s licenses for legal Massachusetts residents who don’t meet the Real ID document verification standards. Baker should sign this provision into law.


Months before the policy made it into the Legislature’s budget, Baker introduced his own Real ID bill. But the legislation he proposed — which was sent to study by a conference committee earlier this spring — was too restrictive. It would have prevented certain eligible residents from getting a license. His plan would have also established a two-tiered card program, but it would have made the process for issuing ordinary, non-Real ID compliant driver’s licenses more burdensome by offering them only as renewals. New applicants would have no choice but to get a Real ID card.

In contrast, the Legislature’s amendment attached to the budget bill requires the state’s registrar of motor vehicles to maintain the status quo and continue issuing an ordinary license while also creating “an enhanced license, the REAL-ID compliant card,” said state Senator Thomas McGee, chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation. It’s not a new or controversial approach: At least 16 of the 24 states that currently meet the Real ID standards offer a two-tiered program, and there is nothing in the federal law that prevents states from issuing licenses solely for the purpose of driving.

Having a two-tiered system of issuing cards guarantees a safety net for those who might have difficulties obtaining a verifiable birth certificate or proof of lawful residence, such as transgender people, seniors, the disabled, or even certain classes of eligible immigrants.


The governor now has only a few days left to sign the budget bill into law, and, with it, the chance to set sensible Real ID policy for Massachusetts. A veto or more restrictive amendment would unnecessarily and unfairly block access to licenses for some immigrants and even some US-born residents.