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Everything you need to know about Minnesota’s Real ID mess — and where it goes from here

By now, plenty of people have been greeted by a sign at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with a startling message: In January of 2018, driver’s licenses in a handful of states won’t pass muster to get through security and board an airplane. 

The third state on the list: Minnesota.

Over the weekend, those who made their way to the airport were greeted by something else: Republican and Democratic legislators holding dueling press conferences, with both sides seeking to deflect the blame for the fact that Minnesota remains on that list.   

The truth is, legislators from both parties in Minnesota have had a long and complicated relationship with the federal government’s Real ID Act, which requires certain minimum security standards for driver’s licenses to enter things like military bases and, yes, travel by air.

After more than a decade of back and forth with the federal government and years of wrangling at the Legislature, lawmakers now say it’s time — finally — for the state to get its act together on Real ID.

Will it? Can it? To answer those questions (and more) here’s an updated breakdown of how Minnesota got here — and what could happen next:

What exactly is the Real ID Act?
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government turned its attention to the security of driver’s licenses, the preferred form of identification used for travel. In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which required new, enhanced IDs with minimum security standards in each state. It also aimed to create uniformity, as many states had their own, often differing standards for identification. 

Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services
An example of a Minnesota driver’s license, above, and an
enhanced ID, below.

The enhanced IDs don’t look very different from current Minnesota licenses, save for a few new federally approved markings. But what’s required to get one of the new IDs is different: verified proof of birth, residence, Social Security numbers and lawful citizenship status. 

More important: As part of the Real ID Act, certain federal agencies, like military bases, were prohibited from accepting any identification that does not meet those standards. Among those agencies is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which uses the IDs to verify passengers boarding commercial flights. 

Wait, Congress passed the law more than a decade ago. Why are we talking about this now, again?

After postponing full implementation over the course of several years, the federal government went state by state to get each to comply with the act or get an extension — but not Minnesota.

That’s because in 2009, state legislators passed a law that prohibited the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) from “taking any action to implement or to plan for the implementation” of the Real ID Act. Basically, it tied the department’s hands from acting or even talking about Real ID.

At the time, lawmakers had concerns about data privacy because the act gave the head of the Department of Homeland Security power to expand license data collection whenever they deemed appropriate. The bill passed with near-unanimous support in the Minnesota Legislature and was signed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty. 

But in 2015, the federal government was putting more pressure on states to comply, and Minnesota lawmakers said it was time to figure out a solution. After failed attempts to come back for a special session in late 2015, Minnesota legislators passed a bill during the 2016 session that lifted the gag rule on Real ID, with intention to let DPS officials start talking to the federal government. It was their intention to pass a second bill at the end of session that would lift the implementation ban and also comply with federal standards. That would likely grant Minnesotans another extension to get enhanced IDs. Some states have until October of 2020 before residents need enhanced IDs.

But the Republican-controlled House and DFL-led Senate had different ideas about what should be included in the bill. The House bill complied with federal Real ID standards, but it also specifically barred undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses. The Senate bill didn’t address the subject of immigrant licenses, and Democrats refused to pass a proposal that would keep certain immigrants from getting a license. Lawmakers ran out of time to find a solution before session adjourned in 2016.

Luckily for legislators, federal officials announced that travelers would have until Jan. 22, 2018, before TSA would require enhanced IDs for air travel.

But that deadline is fast approaching.

So, given all the time’s that passed, legislators must have figured out a solution by now, right?

Not exactly. The Legislature starting working on compliance right after the 2017 session convened in January, but things got complicated pretty quickly. 

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Gov. Mark Dayton

The House passed a Real ID compliance bill off the floor in February that also makes it a law, instead of a rule, that DPS cannot issue licenses to undocumented immigrants. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said he wants the state to go in the opposite direction, passing a law to specifically allow DPS to issue driver’s licenses to people who are in the country illegally.

“If we were willing to allow them to get the training necessary, the insurance necessary to be better drivers, safer drivers, for the sake of the people on the highways, I think we would be a better state for it,” Dayton said.

Republicans now in control of the Senate countered with a bill that did not address the issue of licenses for undocumented immigrants at all (though Democrats say there’s language implying something similar to the House provision in the Senate bill). Dayton urged Democrats to require licenses for undocumented immigrants in exchange for their votes on the Senate version of the bill. Democrats are now in the minority but they still have a lot of leverage: Republicans only have a one-vote majority in the upper chamber.

When Senate Republicans brought their bill to the floor in early March, it was defeated. Every Democratic senator voted against it, as did five Republicans, who are still concerned about the data privacy aspects of Real ID.

So does that mean they’re not going to fix it this session?

The Senate vote was a setback, but it’s not the last chance for legislators to tackle the issue. Legislators are facing a May 22 adjournment deadline to figure out a solution.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is regrouping with DFL senators to try to work up some kind of a compromise. For Democrats, the bigger problem is even if the Senate passed a “clean” Real ID compliance bill, meaning it has zero language related to undocumented driver’s licenses, it will still have to go into negotiations with the House, which has that language in its proposal. 

More important: Dayton said in a statement on Sunday that he will now sign whatever proposal legislators send him, even if it does include language blocking undocumented immigrant driver’s licenses. 

This situation doesn’t sound great. Can I get an enhanced Minnesota ID now if I want one?

Yes. A few years after passing the law blocking implementation of the Real ID Act, some people who travel regularly to Canada were running into clearance problems. Lawmakers created an enhanced driver’s license that meets Homeland Security requirements and is available only upon request. The enhanced ID can be used to re-enter the United States by land and sea from Canada, Mexico and some countries in the Caribbean.

The enhanced ID comes with an extra cost of $15 and is only provided at a handful of state locations. To get an enhanced license, Minnesotans must be at least 16 years old and provide proof of their date of birth, full legal name, Social Security Number, United States residency and photographic proof of their identity.

More than 25,000 Minnesotans now have enhanced IDs, partially over fear that legislators might not come to a solution on complying with the federal government. Those IDs will continue to be valid even if lawmakers agree to a fix this session. 

Let’s assume it doesn’t get fixed by January: Other than a Real ID, what other forms of identification can I use to fly?

Without a solution to the Real ID debacle, Minnesotans would need to show enhanced ID, a passport, permanent residency card or other TSA-accepted ID. Here’s a full list.

How much is this all going to cost the state?

The Senate bill transfers $17 million frome the state’s vehicle services operating account to help DPS issue the new IDs to Minnesotans, but for residents, the new licenses cost the same as their current IDs. 

What about those privacy concerns from back in 2009? Are they still valid?

State Sen. Warren Limmer

Legislators and civil liberties groups are still concerned about the potential for the Department of Homeland Security to change the rules and usage of driver’s license data, but so far no major national databases have been set up. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, has been the leading opponent of implementing the Real ID Act over the years and said he still has those concerns even though states have been forced to comply.

“Instead of a carrot to encourage states to comply, they’ve basically used a club to make states submit,” Limmer said. “We are going to be creaking the door open a little bit. All of our data that we will hold on citizens based on the collection required by Real ID will be held, but we can share it. The Real ID Act demands that we share it with other government bureaucracies in 49 other states.” 

Are there any safeguards in the bill if the federal government wants to start collecting data on licenses? 

There are some. The proposals moving in Minnesota lock in what data can be collected by the federal government, even if authorities decide to gather more down the road. The commissioner of the Department of Public Safety is also prohibited from making any changes to the implementation of the bill without legislative approval. 

What if people don’t want a federal Real ID card? 

That shouldn’t be a problem. Both bills moving in Minnesota allow residents to opt out of getting the new, enhanced ID if they want to. 

Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that a Real ID compliant driver’s licenses would have a security chip embedded inside, but only the enhanced IDs currently issued by the state include a security chip.  

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 03/15/2017 - 11:42 am.

    My Real Concerns

    What I want to know is: 1) Who really is this “Gayle Elizabeth Sample” whose picture always appears on MN drivers licenses?; and 2) How’d she get an enhanced license, with that obvious an alias?

    • Submitted by Jack Lint on 03/16/2017 - 04:09 pm.

      My guess

      Mary Kiffmeyer? She would have been the Minnesota Secretary of State when the Real ID act passed.

      But then why Gayle Elizabeth Sample?

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 03/15/2017 - 11:45 am.

    So, verifying your SS number, your birth,

    residence and lawful citizen status is too much to ask to get a drivers license that the State/Federal authorities will acknowledge? Who do you want having a drivers license? Do you want a person who can’t prove he lives in the state getting a drivers license? How about a person who can’t verify his SS number, is he ok? How about someone that has no record of their birth, is that fine too?

    In today’s world of access to all of our records, asking a person to prove 4 basic questions doesn’t seem too hard unless you would like folks who can’t prove those questions having a drivers license. I can’t figure out why you would, but I’m sure there are good reasons I can’t think of.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/15/2017 - 12:38 pm.

    Who do you want having a drivers license?

    People who know how to drive.

    Do you want a person who can’t prove he lives in the state getting a drivers license?

    Again the key to having a driver license is knowing how to drive. I don’t care where the drivers with whom I share the road, live.

    How about a person who can’t verify his SS number, is he ok?

    If he can drive sure. I don’t see any necessary link between an ability to verify an SS number with driving. I don’t even see much of a link between an ability to verify an SS number and actually having one.

    How about someone that has no record of their birth, is that fine too?

    As long as he can drive, why not. Generally, I am willing to accept that any person I meet was, at some point during their life, born. I don’t know think having documentation to that effect really adds much to my preexisting understanding of the situation.

    • Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 03/15/2017 - 02:42 pm.

      Awesome Answers

      Bad drivers are a consistenly present annoyance in my 40-minute-or-so daily commuting life. Bring on the computers.

  4. Submitted by Tim Milner on 03/15/2017 - 01:19 pm.

    The reality is

    that the current identification rules to obtain a MN drivers license:


    already prohibit people in the country illegally from getting a MN Drivers License – Real ID law or not. Because they could not possibly have 2 of the required documents listed because, if they did, they would have a legally permitted reason to be in the country!!

    So Gov Dayton’s and the DFL position has nothing to do with Real ID – they want to change the existing law to allow illegals to get a drivers license. If they succeed, the Feds will likely rule the driver’s licenses issued in MN to be invalid – just like the Feds did in New Mexico – and we start all over.

    Maybe there is a reason to do that – but if so – make your case for an illegal person drivers license in a separate bill. Let the Real ID pass as is so that the rest of MN can get on with their lives.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/15/2017 - 01:57 pm.

    A small complaint

    I’m inclined toward HIram Foster’s response. When the local gendarme pulls you over for speeding, he’s likely more concerned with your local address and any prior history or outstanding warrants than he is with your citizenship status (I’m willing to stand corrected if there are any local police reading this). Minnesota roads already see plenty of bona fide citizens behind the wheel who obviously don’t have a clue about how to drive, so citizenship does nothing to improve my safety on the roads.

    “The enhanced ID comes with an extra cost of $15 and is only provided at a handful of state locations.” I’d have liked it — it would have been something akin to a public service — if Ms. Bierschbach had provided at least the names of that “handful of state locations.”

  6. Submitted by John Ferman on 03/15/2017 - 02:07 pm.

    Proving Citizenship

    Using the ‘merest whif of a doubt’ standard I suspect no one can prove having been born in the USA. Is your birth certificate a picture birth certificate and do you look like that picture. Only Native Americans and Naturalized citizens can ‘prove’ citizenship. All the rest of us are citizens ‘by are word.’ Does a Social Security card prove citizenship – well, every wage earner pays a fee into Social Security and each payee will have a number and you do not have to be a citizen to work for wages and pat into Social Security. A utility bill (what if the account is in the name of one person and other members are not named) just tells you pay the bill and proves nothing about citizenship.

  7. Submitted by Ambre Quinn on 03/15/2017 - 05:49 pm.

    Until 2003, MN had a driver’s license for all — meaning any resident who passed the drivers test and paid the application fee had access to a legal driver’s license.

    Governor Pawlenty’ 2003 Executive Order made it impossible for undocumented immigrants to access a legal driver’s license.

    The bill that was voted down in the Senate last week, SF166, as worded will NOT grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. What this article misses is that, although it contains no immigrant-specific language at all, it does contain “anti-rule making language” regarding the non-REAL ID license (for driving only) that WOULD prevent any future Governors from making changes to DL rules (including potentially reversing Pawlenty’s rules from 2003) and forces those changes to be legislated instead.

    It essentially slams the door on any chances of going back to granting a legal driver’s license to all MN residents on the road.

    Also, some people don’t seem to understand that the MN bill outlines two options:
    Option 1: Real ID-compliant Driver’s license with added security and national database, for air travel, access to military bases and power plants.
    Option 2: Regular license for state ID and legal driving purposes; people choosing this license would use a passport to travel. (I personally will opt for this one because I have concerns about data privacy and do NOT want my DMV file data in the federal government’s hands)

    We still have plenty of time to negotiate a clean bill without the current UNNECESSARY anti-rule making language that ties the Governor’s hands.

    MN will be Real ID compliant by January 1, 2018, it is a bit early to panic, when the primary hold-up is removal of one extra sentence from the bill!

  8. Submitted by Alan Straka on 03/15/2017 - 07:16 pm.


    If an enhanced driver’s license is valid for travel and anyone who qualifies can get one, is there really a problem? If you need one to travel, spend the extra 15 bucks. Sounds like the proposed solution is simply changing the default. Now you have to opt in to get the enhanced license and the proposal would allow you to opt out of the enhanced version.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 03/16/2017 - 10:11 am.

    Using the ‘merest whif of a doubt’ standard I suspect no one can prove having been born in the USA.

    thankfully that’s not the standard. But as our president has shown anyone can raise questions about anything. It’s a free country, at least for now.

    “Does a Social Security card prove citizenship?”

    No, it doesn’t. Many millions of people have Social Security cards perfectly legally who are not citizens of the United States. Actually there are very few things citizens can do, that non citizens can’t. Non Citizens can’t vote, and can’t serve on juries, and maybe have certain election restrictions. But they have for the most part the same constitutional rights that citizens do. They have been subject to the military draft, and would be again if it were activated.. A surprising large number of men and women serving in our armed forces are not citizens.

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/18/2017 - 07:44 am.

    Average Jo Blow citizen worries more about the right to drive

    than the right to vote so why get all up tight about the lesser worry…who has a right to drive, who not?

    Who will have the right to walk free in this nation give or take a few more administration mandates?

    How soon before the security chip will be planted in every ‘qualified citizen’s’ arm…better than a tattoo…way to go eh, in a free society?

  11. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/20/2017 - 09:41 am.

    Get a passport

    You’re gonna need it anyway.

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