If Minnesota state legislators were looking for reassurance that the state will be compliant with stricter drivers license requirements in time for an Oct. 1 federal deadline, they didn’t get it.
Instead, a joint House and Senate committee was told Friday there is little chance the state will be able to issue REAL ID licenses and identification cards to all who want them in time for the deadline.
“I don’t want to see the faces of crying children who can’t get on an airplane because mom and dad waited too long to get their REAL ID,” John Harrington, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, told the Driver and Vehicle Systems Oversight Committee Friday.
The worst-case scenario is that any Minnesotans without REAL ID come October — or without a passport or a REAL ID-compliant Enhanced Drivers License — will be denied permission to board commercial flights in any U.S. airport.
And while Oct. 1 is the federal deadline, the state is facing such a backlog in processing the applications that the real deadline in Minnesota could be more like July 1 or even June 1. Indeed, an application that doesn’t come in with all of the needed documents by then likely won’t be processed and mailed in time for a resident to receive their REAL ID by Oct. 1.
A big backlog … that’s getting bigger
The new licenses have been available since Oct. 1, 2018 but only 12.6 percent of residents have one, Harrington said. That is 333,184 of the 4.12 million driver’s licenses issued by the state. Another 260,000 have Enhanced Drivers Licenses. Add in the estimated 37.5 percent who have valid passports and just half of Minnesotans currently possess identification that would let them board a commercial jetliner.
Harrington told the committee that the Driver and Vehicle Services division he oversees is getting 19,000 applications a week, just over half of which are for REAL ID-compliant licenses. At that pace, the state will not be able to issue new licenses to all who might need or want one.
“We have 33 weeks between now and when REAL ID comes into force,” Harrington said. “We are processing an enormous number of applications even as we speak. But we need to double or triple that volume if we are to make our deadline.”
Emma Corrie, the director of the state Driver and Vehicle Services division, said she feels confident that by Oct. 1, everyone in the state will at least know about the REAL ID requirement and know how to get new licenses. She was less confident that all who want or need one will have one by then.
The summer months are already the division’s busiest for driver road tests, and the department is also facing a November deadline for having the state’s new Vehicle Title and Registration System — a replacement for the troubled MNLARS system — up and running.
Corrie urged residents to pre-apply online and to read and understand the documents that are needed. Offices like those in Hennepin County with the equipment to scan documents can also reduce the wait times. She said her staff will do what it can to make application and qualification easier, but they must comply with state and federal requirements.
Still, the volume of applications currently in the system and anticipated to come in over the next several months has created a backlog. The current wait is 46 days to get a REAL ID, she said, 56 days for an Enhanced ID and 33 days for a standard ID.
“The good news is our communications are working. The not so good news is our communications are working,” Corrie said. “People are coming in and those numbers will continue to increase.”
There are now 63,000 people who have completed applications and are awaiting processing of those applications, and Corrie thinks the backlog will reach 90 days or even 120 days.
“If you are not in with your paperwork by June first, I cannot guarantee you,” she said.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, a member of the joint committee and the chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he is willing to make legal changes to ease the process. But the department will need to work quickly to get legislation ready so that it can be drafted, heard and approved in the coming weeks.
Lots of documents
The regular license that most drivers now have will still be valid for driving and for other identification needs. And that might be enough for residents who either don’t fly, don’t enter federal facilities, or who have a passport.
The rest will need a new license. And to get one, they will need to bring a set of documents — a birth certificate, passport, permanent resident card or certificate of citizenship to prove their identity, birthdate and legal U.S. presence — to a DVS office. They will be scanned or copied and returned to the applicant at the DVS or registrars office.
Applicants also must have something to prove their Social Security number, either a Social Security card or a W-2 form. Finally, they need two documents to prove their current state residency. Those documents could be a current driver’s license, an income tax return, a recent utility bill or a credit card statement.
But even then, not every version of these documents will be accepted. A Social Security card that is laminated is considered altered and won’t work. Those souvenir birth certificates that hospitals sometimes give new parents also won’t work.
The requirements for Enhanced driver’s licenses under state law are even more stringent. Enhanced licenses are good for those driving into Canada or Mexico and are also REAL ID compliant. But Harrington said most residents won’t need them.
Corrie and Harrington suggested that state legislators who want to help might consider a quick change to state law to broaden the number and types of documents that can be used to get REAL ID.
Could the feds move the deadline (again)?
Could the deadline move again, as it has repeatedly since the federal law was passed?
Harrington said there are conversations happening at the federal level as to whether this deadline is “cast in stone.”
“As I sit here with you today, it is,” he said. “There is no wiggle room, there’s no plus-or-minus a few days. By Oct. 1, to get their citizens on an airplane, they must have REAL ID-compliant identification cards.”
REAL ID was one of the recommendations of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the 9/11 Commission . Congress voted in 2005 to require all states to have minimum standards for driver’s licenses to assure that people are who they say they are.
The deadline was pushed back repeatedly as some states, Minnesota included, raised concerns about privacy and the security of documents residents were required to hand over to get the IDs. There were also issues around how non-citizens would be treated under the requirement.
Minnesota passed its REAL ID law in 2017, making it the last state to come into compliance with the federal requirement.
Correction: This story was changed to correct a statement that some documents might be retained by the DVS or registrar. In all cases, identifying documents are returned to the applicant after begin scanned or copied.