Walz REAL ID

Gov. Tim Walz shown opening a REAL ID office at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on March 4. (Office of the Governor)

When last we left the drama that is REAL ID, Minnesota lawmakers and state licensing officials were stressing out over an approaching deadline. It was early March of 2020, and the state was anticipating so many applicants to obtain the enhanced ID cards by Oct. 1 of that year that it seemed like it might be difficult — no, impossible — to deliver the cards in time.

And that would have been a real problem: Under federal rules stemming from the 9/11 terror attacks, non-REAL ID licenses and ID cards would no longer be enough to get past a TSA security check at the airport.

During testimony a year ago, state Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington foresaw tearful scenes at the airport where children were told they couldn’t go to Disneyland because mom and dad forgot to get the more-secure licenses that will be required to board airliners.

Turns out the state officials didn’t know what stress was. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just a few weeks later. The federal government delayed the deadline yet again, as though there were flights to board anyway. Licensing operations shut down and then reverted to virtual interactions.

But today, the new deadline — October 1, 2021 — is closer than the former deadline was back then. Is Minnesota any better positioned to meet the cutoff?

It is. And the department in charge of bringing state residents into compliance is a bit less frantic about it. “We want to really focus on those that really need it,” said Emma Corrie, the director of the Driver and Vehicle Services Division of the Department of Public Safety. “When you think about it, a lot of the folks who were coming in for REAL IDs were using their passports for their primary document. What dawned on us, in the heart of COVID where we are trying to serve as many as we possibly can, the folks that really need REAL ID are not those who have a passport.

“Where the shift in our messaging is we want to really focus on the families who are at risk of being at the airport for vacation and get turned down,” Corrie said.

A time-consuming process

According to numbers released Thursday by DVS, 635,545 residents had REAL ID licenses and identification cards as of March 11; 424,365 had enhanced licenses or ID cards; and 3,766,280 have regular licenses and ID cards. That’s about 22 percent of the state’s licenses considered “REAL ID Ready.”

A year ago it was at 15 percent.

Federal estimates are that 231,885 Minnesotans have valid passports.

Enhanced licenses are used by residents who frequently enter Canada by land or sea. REAL ID doesn’t work in that situation and flying into Canada still requires a passport.

Passports won’t be the only other valid ID for entering federal facilities or boarding domestic flights. A passport card, Department of Defense IDs, tribal IDs, trusted traveler program cards like those issued by Global Entry and a few others will also work.

Those who have options are advised to use them, since getting a REAL ID or enhanced license can be time-consuming and prone to frustration. Applicants need to bring a set of documents with them to the state licensing or contract registrar’s office. One set is meant to prove citizenship or legal residency: an official birth certificate, a passport, a permanent resident card or certificate of citizenship.

They also must provide proof of a social security number with either a social security card or W-2 form. Finally, they must bring two different documents to show current residency: an income tax return, a current driver’s license, a utility bill or a credit/debit card statement.

Dept. of Public SafetyEvery air traveler 18 years of age or older will need a REAL ID, enhanced driver’s license or ID, passport or passport card or another acceptable form of ID to fly within the United States or enter federal facilities.

But not even 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.

While Corrie suggests that those with a passport who don’t mind bringing it on domestic air trips might not need a REAL ID, some might still want it for the convenience of not having to carry that passport. And she suggests that those without passports — but who think they won’t be flying in the near future — should apply to get a REAL ID anyway because of the time it takes to get one.

Trying to speed things up

It’s only a coincidence that the newest deadline falls just three weeks after the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The more-secure IDs were one of many recommendations that came out of the commission that investigated the attacks to assure the nation was better protected in the future.

One of those security gaps was the relative ease with which the hijackers were able to get fraudulent photo IDs. The commission wanted those documents to have more meaning, so the federal law passed in 2005 required people to bring in records to verify their identity.

At the same time, however, civil liberties and privacy advocates expressed concerns over the demand for the many financial and identifying documents required, doubting the government’s ability to keep them secure. Many states shared those concerns, and Minnesota was one of the longest holdouts of implementing the new requirements. In fact, in 2017 it became the last state to pass legislation that brought it into compliance with federal REAL ID requirements.

Starting on Oct. 1, 2018, some residents of the state began applying for REAL ID. But most didn’t. Blame procrastination and a lack of understanding of the consequences. Thus the panicky testimony last year and the attempts to publicize the issue, including a press conference at MSP upon the opening of an office for issuing the new documents.

The Department of Public Safety has since been trying to find ways to speed things up. Before the pandemic-caused recess last year, the department asked for a series of changes to some strange laws governing which documents can be presented for verification of identity. One example: A utility bill was invalid to prove residency if the addressees have different last names.

“We could see and feel the frustration when our customers needed to make multiple trips to the licensing offices,” Corrie said. “The changes we asked for were directly informed by the conversations at our counter by what we were hearing from our customers.”

The department also wanted some extra money to hire up in its offices to help applicants and process the paperwork.

The new licenses have been available since Oct. 1, 2018 but only 12.6 percent of residents have one, Commissioner Harrington said.

That was provided in the emergency pandemic bill passed during a one-day session of the Legislature last March 26. But because the pandemic shutdowns prevented the division from spending the $2.4 million that had been set aside, the department is now asking the current Legislature to reauthorize it.

State licenses offices, registrars and agents are reopening to process REAL ID and other licenses. The state has also provided scanning equipment to 173 registrars and agents to speed the processing of documents.

Still, the state suggests — actually, strongly requests — that applicants pre-apply at the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle website to reduce time in the licensing office and make sure people bring the correct materials.

What if residents have licenses that don’t expire for a while? They can wait if they don’t need to fly until the expiration date or have other valid IDs. Or they can apply now. And though they’ll pay an add-on fee for renewing early — $2 for a renewal up to 17 months before expiration; $4 for a renewal 18-29 months before expiration; $6 for a renewal more than 29 months before expiration — their new license or ID card will last for four years after issuance.

But even here there are rules: “The early renewal option is only for those who renewed their Minnesota driver’s license or ID card before REAL IDs were available on Oct. 1, 2018,” the department states on its website. “Their licenses must also expire after the full enforcement date of Oct. 1, 2021.”

Two other items from the TSA’s FAQs on REAL ID to note: Flyers won’t necessarily be grounded if they hit the airport without the proper ID after Oct. 1: “The TSA officer may ask you to complete an identity verification process which includes collecting information such as your name, current address, and other personal information to confirm your identity. If your identity is confirmed, you will be allowed to enter the screening checkpoint. You will be subject to additional screening, to include a patdown and screening of carry-on property.”

And the TSA “does not require children under 18 to provide identification when traveling within the United States. Contact the airline for questions regarding specific ID requirements for travelers under 18.”

Peter Callaghan covers state government for MinnPost.

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