Mainers Have A Lot Of Questions About REAL ID Requirements. Here Are Some Answers

Dec 9, 2019

Perhaps you're planning to fly to another state sometime this holiday season. Maybe you didn't think much about it when you booked your trip to Chicago or Phoenix. Or maybe you're planning to take the kids to Disney World over the winter break. As of right now, you can flash your Maine drivers' license and get on the plane, but at this time next year, that will not be the case.

Maine's Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap is already worried about that.

(scroll down for a Q&A with Sec. Dunlap)

"On October 1, 2020, if you don't have a REAL ID, and you don't have a passport, then you're going to have a hard time flying, or getting into a federal facility that requires that type of ID," says Dunlap.

To get Mainers up to speed, following some 15 years of debates, waivers and delays, the State of Maine and officials from the Office of Homeland Security are planning an information blitz, starting now.

The nightmare they're trying to prevent?

Dunlap addresses reporters in 2018
Credit Steve Mistler / Maine Public File

"October 2020 and there's a class trip going to Disney, and suddenly none of them get on the plane because they don't have any of the right credentials,” says Dunlap. “You know, the last thing they want is to get their switchboard blowing up with calls from U.S. Senators and Congressmen, because that's who everybody's going to call. And so that's part of the effort we're trying to go through right now, is to get the word out a little bit. Think about what you need, what you don't need, and try to get that taken care of ahead of time."

Maine started printing its first REAL ID compliant cards in June, and also began putting disclaimers on the standard license to differentiate them from the REAL ID approved cards.

There are several iterations of the Maine license currently in circulation, partly due to confusion over the language printed on some of the new, standard licenses, which caused valid cards to be rejected. Shopkeepers and auto rental companies for some time to come will see cards those cards that simply say: “Not Valid for REAL ID Purposes.”

"Yeah, that's caused a lot of confusion," says Dunlap. "Because people were being told they couldn't use that to rent a movie. That's now been changed. So we have a new design of the license that has both “Not Valid for REAL ID Purposes” and the clearer “Not Valid for Federal Purposes.” So you can still use it to close a mortgage, you can still use it to rent a car, you can still use it to buy alcohol and cigarettes. And, we put out some cards we give to people, that they can hand to a store clerk with their non-compliant credentials to that explain that, yes, you can use it for state purposes."

Cards that might currently be in a Mainer's wallet include: standard non-REAL ID license, the REAL ID license, a standard state ID card, a REAL ID state identification card, a NEXUS card issued under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a standard passport and/or a passport card, to name a few. Dunlap says he and other officials realized how baffled some residents were went they started doing information sessions on the coming REAL ID law.

"So in a Q& A, a woman asked me, 'Okay, so I'm driving, and I don't have a driver's license. All I have is a passport. What do I give the officer?' I said, what you give the officer is your wrists, because you're under arrest for driving without a license. I mean, this is how confused people are."

Now in his final term as Secretary of State, Dunlap says getting Mainers up to speed on the process and to have a smooth system in place for his predecessor is at the top of his wish list.

So far, only about 20 percent of license applicants and renewals since the July rollout have opted for the special cards, with 80 percent opting out.

Part of the low opt-in rate for Maine, says Dunlap, may be due to the fact that about half of Mainers already hold passports, which are needed for crossing the border into Canada.

But for the other half? They have a big decision to make before October 1, 2020, and what people are finding says Dunlap, is that getting a REAL ID isn't an exact science, and it's best not to leave it until September 30, 2020.

Answering Your REAL ID Questions

  So Who Needs A Real ID?

First thing I'm going to ask an applicant is, do you have a passport? If the answer is yes, then you don't need to do any of this. But you will need to use your passport for domestic flights starting October 1, 2020. The passport is good for ten years, REAL ID is good for six years. The passport costs $110, the REAL ID license costs $55- so it's a little more expensive than the standard license. The standard license costs $35. If you have a passport and decide you just want a REAL ID anyway, maybe you don't want to carry your passport around all the time, then you need to apply for REAL ID.

In this May 9, 2017, file photo, U.S. passports lie on a table in Dallas.
Credit Benny Snyder / AP File

And that's actually caused a little bit of anger. In the offices, people have been bringing in all this stuff. They go to vital records, they get a certified copy of their birth certificate, they get all their marriage licenses, etc. and then they come to the office and find out, well, if you have a passport, you don't need this. It's like well, “I spent all this money to get all these documents and now you're telling me I don't even need them.” And you know, that that's been the challenge is getting the right information out to people. What they need, and what they don't need. And so, like I said, I stress to everyone. Do you have a passport? If yes, you're good. You don't need to do REAL ID if you don't want to.

Where To Get One:

At your local Bureau of Motor Vehicles office. The Maine Secretary of State's website has a wealth of information. And you can always call ahead to ask.

What Do People Need To Bring?

The basic formula is one document to establish date of birth, place of birth, proof of citizenship, or lawful status. One document to establish proof of Social Security Number or ineligibility for social security. It could be an I-9, tax forms, pay stubs, a W-2 form with your name on it. You also need two documents to establish proof of residence. Those have to have your physical address on them. A utility bill, pay stub, mortgage statement.

If you've been married and changed your name, you have to bring your marriage license. If you haven't been married and changed your name, we need the court decree. If you got married, changed your name, and then got divorced and changed your name back, we need the divorce decree. One of my classmates has been married and divorced three times and had to bring every single one of those documents to get a REAL ID. Again, the punch line to this is if you have a passport, you don't need to do any of this. You don't need to get a REAL ID.

Credit AP File

What If Someone's Backstory Is Complicated Or They Don't Have Documents?

Birth certificates historically are available through the state office of vital records, in the state the person was born. They typically cost about $15 or so dollars, so if you know when and where you were born, then start there. But one of the things we told Homeland Security and the TSA is that making the rule for the rule is always going to be easy. The problem is the exceptions to the rule. Example: you know I helped a fellow who was an adoptee. He was born in Vietnam. His adoptive father was an American servicemen. The hospital he was born in was destroyed by a missile about a week after he was born. There were no records. What do you do? So now he had to renew his driver's license, and he was told he had to prove that he was an American citizen. We went so far as to get a copy of his father's obituary, which listed him as a survivor. And that was good enough for us, you know, to establish American citizenship.

Establishing citizenship is also complicated for people up on the border, who may have been born in a hospital in New Brunswick, their parents are American, or they were born abroad, or they're born on a farm, and they didn't have a birth certificate, and they worked on that farm their whole life.

Well, maybe we'll ask them for a baptismal record, because sometimes people in those areas were likely baptized we'll take the baptism record is proof of citizenship. Homeland Security hates that, by the way. But sometimes that's all we have to work with. Catholic Charities of Maine, they have a great ID system, and it's very reliable and use that as a starting point when we can't find anything else. So, you know, we make use of some different resources, it involves a lot of handwork. But for somebody to come to a service window and get a REAL ID, they kind of have to have their documents in order, otherwise, we're gonna have to go through an acceptance process. And those are the things that we're really having to take time and parse apart and so that people can get the credentials they need.

What If Someone Has No Fixed Abode, Or Has Been Experiencing Homelessness?

Well, we have a have a mechanism for that, too. There are ways to document it. If somebody is living under the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge, all we really need is for you to get somebody, from a shelter for example, a case worker, to swear-out an affidavit that that's where you normally return to is under the bridge, and we'll accept that and we will use that as proof of residency.

The identity part can be a little bit tougher. If people don't have anything in their name, they don't have a birth certificate. So you know, it's not impossible whatever the circumstance. And in fact, the routine transactions are little bit more uncommon than the exceptions, I would say. 16-year old kids usually don't have a problem. They have their birth certificate because they're relatively young. They've probably lived in the same address most of their lives, you know, their parents come, they swear-out the affidavit, they don't have a utility bill, it's pretty simple. But it gets more complicated for older people, who have moved around, don't remember or know where their paperwork is. The less paperwork you have, or the more changes in your life that you've had, the harder it's going to be track down the documentation. In fact, because birth and identity is not straightforward, all these requirements are waived if you were born prior to 1935. It would have just been too hard to prove. For example, if you arrived in the country as an immigrant child at that time, you were automatically a citizen, no birth certificate.

Can A Tribal Id Card Be Used To Establish Citizenship?

Well, you know, again, this is almost a case by case basis. It depends on the tribe. In the case of a tribe that exists wholly within the United States, the answer would probably be yes.

What About For The Wabanaki, Whose Historic Lands Don't Conform To The Maine Of 1820?

That is a bit trickier. For example, the Micmac and the Maliseet spread over both New Brunswick and Maine. So that makes it a little bit trickier to accept that as a proof of citizenship. They have very large tribal organizations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. So they're very big in Canada. A tribal ID card would probably need to be very specific to Maine in order for us to accept it easily. Otherwise, we'd have to do a little bit of background research on it.

Is A Military ID Valid Proof?

The military ID card on its face, we would not accept as proof of citizenship. If they don't have a birth certificate, we would probably ask them to go find something else. You don't have to be a citizen to be in the military. In fact, it's a valid faster track to citizenship, so no, we would ask them to bring something else. A baptismal record for instance.

What About Newly Arrived Americans, Migrants, And Asylum Seekers?

It's actually it depends what their status is, if they don't have an official status, they can't get any credential. They cannot get a credential if they don't have a status, they have to have a status. And what that means is they have to have been acknowledged by immigration as having been given temporary status seeking asylum. It's not enough simply to apply for asylum. You know, you can apply for asylum all day long. That doesn't give you a status. And I dealt with this. We had a fellow from Ukraine that was in this predicament. He was applying for some type of a status which he was having a really difficult time doing. He finally had to go back to Ukraine and get a new visa- that's what he ended up having to do. Now, if you're in status, if you've applied for asylum, and say Homeland Security, immigration has granted us a temporary asylum status for, say, six months, we can give you the license, but it's only going to be good for six months because we have coterminus expiration. So you can't come in here for on a student visa for 90 days, get a license six years. The minimum we issue a license for is four months. But somebody who had come to Maine with the permission of the federal government, and they have an asylum status, temporary or permanent, they will have a document, we will accept that document and will issue them a credential.

What If Your Gender Is Different To The Sex Listed On Your Birth Certificate?

We have a mechanism to deal with that too. There's a couple of different things that can happen here. If someone is actually seeking gender reassignment, we have a documentation process for that. And we just simply change the designation on the driver's license, we basically get a doctor's note. But you also have the non-binary gender designation option. When somebody comes in and says, “I am non-binary” that's all they have to tell us. No proof required. We put an X on their licenses instead of an F or an M. That's relatively new.

Now to actually change your F to an M or M to F, we do require a medical certificate that they've actually had the gender reassignment surgery, or the surgery is pending. It doesn't have to be done, but it has to be pending.

How Final Is All This Really?

It goes into effect October, 2020. For now. You know, they can change the rules, and I can't predict if that would ever happen or when it would happen or what it would look like. They could do a rule change with no notice whatsoever. We have people that read the Federal Register everyday assiduously to look for these types of things that might come up as surprises. I mean, one would hope that they would seek a public comment process, but I believe they have broader authority than requiring public comments. I mean, we've been through so much with Homeland Security since this was conceived in law. Our relationship with Homeland Security right now is better than it's ever been. Because they actually now acknowledge that states have a role in all this, which before they were just kind of telling us what to do. And it was very, very frustrating but they're better partners now for sure. And I think they do help us with resources to get information out in now in ways they never did before.

This is stacking wood before it snows. Don't wait to buy a snow shovel until you have 18 inches of snow on your front step. You know, this is a good time to explore all of this before the requirement fully kicks, and we're going to have these conversations over the next, you know, 11 months and beyond, I'm sure because I'm going into my last year as Secretary of State. And my goal is to get it all taken care of and sewn up. So it's not a headache for the next Secretary of State. And to that degree, our real focus here is just to really try to help people understand, and comply if they need to.

Originally published Dec. 9, 2019 at 8:28 a.m. ET.