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About The Issue > White Paper on DMV survey

The Motor Vehicle Administrators Survey on Real ID

An ACLU White Paper

The results of 2005 survey of state motor vehicles agencies conducted by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) reveal that those officials have deep concerns over the Real ID Act, and believe it will require extensive changes to existing practices at motor vehicles departments, will be extremely difficult to implement by the act’s deadline, and will be very expensive to carry out. The survey makes clearer than ever that the Real ID Act would be a disaster for states, drivers, taxpayers, immigrants, and citizens.

The Real ID Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in May 2005. It would federalize state driver’s license and identity cards by imposing a broad array of regulations on how they are designed, issued, and verified – turning them into what are, for all practical purposes, America’s first-ever national identity cards.

Because the Act was rammed through Congress without proper hearings, debate, expert input, or an up-or-down vote, it fails to reflect the realities and complexities of real-world motor vehicle agencies in the 50 states. This is starkly revealed by the survey, in which officials in those agencies (called "DMV’s" in many states) describe their concerns about the task of complying with this sprawling federal mandate. In written responses that are often scathing, plaintive, befuddled, or anxious, DMV officials from 50 U.S. jurisdictions collectively paint a picture of a gargantuan overhaul of the nation’s diverse driver’s license and identity bureaucracies.

The survey, which was first reported by the Associated Press, makes two things very clear. First, the DMVs are beginning to understand just what a tangled mess they are facing in having to try to comply with Real ID. And second, those effects will soon be felt by individual drivers and residents. In addition to worrying about the ominous privacy implications of creating a system of federal identity papers, Americans under Real ID are looking at a future of longer lines and worsening service at the DMV, more complicated document requirements, higher fees and/or taxes, bureaucratic dead-ends, and, for many, an outright denial of IDs – even as those IDs are made more indispensable for living a normal life. (Further analysis of the burdens Real ID poses for the states is available in the document "Real Burdens.")


The DMV administrators’ survey responses make it clear that as a group these professionals consider many of Real ID’s mandates to be highly impractical and, within the deadline set by Congress, impossible. Examples include:

Document verification

The Real ID Act includes a requirement that states "shall verify, with the issuing agency, the issuance, validity, and completeness of each document required to be presented" to get a Real ID card. Although some states report having in place methods for verifying social security numbers and a few other particular items, many regard the construction of such systems as a major obstacle. And the administrators nearly all pointed out that currently, there is absolutely no way for DMVs to perform that function with regard to birth certificates, which are issued by over 6,000 jurisdictions in the United States alone.

  • Nevada wrote that this requirement would bring a "Large fiscal impact and unreasonable delays in processing," while Vermont complained that "We do not have the funds or personnel to implement these systems."
  • Since it is highly unlikely that all state vital record agencies will be electronically connected for authentication upon the effective date of the legislation, how are verifications of birth certificates expected to be handled?" (Maryland)
  • New York thought it could mitigate some of the impact of this requirement, but concluded, "Still, we will see an increase in transaction times, requiring as many as 200 additional field staff to handle this effort."
    One administrator concluded, "Illinois is like every state in that we are currently unable to comply with this for every breeder document."

Overall, 76% of the states reported that this requirement’s impact would be "high" (requiring "Major reprogramming, training, legislation/major costs") or "medium" (requiring "policy changes, computer programming").

Interconnection of state databases

Real ID requires that each state build the ability to provide all the other states with access to the information contained in its motor vehicle database – creating, in effect, a single national distributed database operated by the states. The survey made it clear that administrators have no idea how this will happen.

  • Illinois: "Establishing direct connections with all other states and jurisdictions, esp. in the absence of uniform standards for information exchange, would be a nightmare for all states. (Can we go home now??)"
  • Nebraska: "No database exists for electronic checking [licenses from other jurisdictions] – manual process would be very time consuming if not impossible."
  • New Jersey observed simply, "On a scale of 1 to 10, this rates as a 10 effort."

Overall, 47% of the state respondents said this requirement would have a high or medium impact. Many pointed out that the sharing of information from state driver’s databases would require their legislatures to change their state laws.

Full names

Some of the Real ID mandates might seem straightforward to a layman, but actually represent devilishly complicated alterations to the complex of computer programs, databases, personnel systems, breeder documents, and identity cards that make up modern DMVs.

One example cited by many of the survey respondents is Real ID’s requirement that compliant identity papers contain individuals’ full legal names. To begin with, many breeder documents such as social security cards, birth certificates, and passports do not always contain consistent renderings of a person’s name. Even more worrisome for many administrators is the fact that, because a portion of the population possess extremely long names, the use of full names would require the reprogramming of computer databases and program interfaces, as well as the physical cards themselves, to allow for a name field that is a recommended to be at least 100 (some say 126) characters long.

  • "If the Real ID Act is similar to the DL/ID Security Framework which proposes that we have room to capture 100 characters for an individual’s full legal name, it will be impossible for us to do this with our current system. We would not be able to implement this data element/feature until we get a new system." (Vermont)
  • The "Impact of expanding these fields would be costly without benefit." (Kentucky)
  • Many states echoed Arizona’s list of effects this seemingly simple requirement would have: "change to current process. Requires database expansion and programming changes. Requires legislation. Requires funding."

A third of the states, where driver’s licenses already allowed for long name fields, said the requirement would not affect them – but 47% percent said the impact would be "high."

Scanner/Electronic Capture

Many states also reported that Real ID’s requirement that states to retain a digital scan of source identity documents like birth certificates for at least 10 years (or a paper copy for 7 years) would have a major impact on their operations.

  • Kentucky, for example, wrote that "This would be a very huge impact" upon the state, and that it "could require up to additional 300 people to handle additional workload."
  • Nebraska estimated this provision would have an "impact in the millions of dollars," while New Jersey warned it would have a "significant influence on customer service."
  • Other states mentioned the purchase of new equipment, policy changes, training, the remodeling or redesign of offices, and computer software, development and storage costs.

Overall, 82% of the respondents predicted a medium-to-high impact from this requirement.

Other troublesome requirements

These were far from the only other requirements of Real ID that troubled the experts in the states. A few of the others were:

  • Reconciliation with the Social Security Administration of discrepancies in social security numbers ("Impossible for the states to resolve" – Pennsylvania)
  • Tying the expiration dates of IDs to the end of an immigrant’s authorized stay in the country ("cannot do with existing staff" – Nebraska). Many also pointed out that this was not permitted under their current state laws.
  • Requiring proof of "legal presence" in the United States from immigrants. ("Statutory, system, policy, and procedural changes would be necessary" – Virginia)

Problems even greater than survey reflects

Despite the page after page of problems highlighted by the motor vehicles officials in this survey, many of them also appear to consistently underestimate just how tough and uncompromising the legal requirements in the Real ID Act are. Some of the responses breeze over what will in reality be knotty problems. On the requirement that states reconcile social security number problems, for example, Iowa wrote simply, "We’re going to send the customer to the SSA." That is not at all what the law directs.

In addition, despite the administrators’ negative response to Real ID, the survey (which included space for respondents to list the assumptions on which they based their answers) was chock full of over-optimistic assumptions about the help that would be provided to the state. On the requirement to verify source documents, for example, Kansas officials responded simply, "can be done when systems are in place for Kansas to connect to." Many states based their responses on assumptions that the Real ID regulations, when they are issued by the Department of Homeland Security, will match the technical standards already in use in their state – something that will not be the case for many if the regulations are to impose standardization. California’s assumption, for example, "is that security features and machine-readable requirements will be similar to existing feature technology."

Basic questions remain

For a group of professionals expert in the administration of motor vehicle agencies, the large number of unanswered questions listed by the respondents on very basic questions about Real ID is very telling about the poor construction of the law. Examples include:

  • "What is truly meant by ‘address verification’?" (California)
  • "Does State Dept. intend to have ability to verify U.S. passports?" (Illinois)
  • "What happens to Wisconsin residents during the transition time, ie, after REAL ID is implemented, but before their license expires? If they need to board a plane, do they have to get a new license?"

Some states provided long lists of such questions about the act.

Many of the states also posed anxious questions about how they could possibly meet the compliance deadline set forth in the Real ID legislation. "The Act requires that all states implement in a three (3) year period," noted the New Jersey respondent. "States cannot move their entire population through a new standard of licensing in that time period." Missouri warned that "Three years is a very short period of time considering the requirements and the systems that are still under development," and Illinois that "3 years is a very short time, with two state budget and legislative cycles at most."

Especially common were pleas that Homeland Security issue its rules to clarify these issues with as much speed as possible (however, at this writing the rules are not expected until summer 2006 at the earliest – too late for the year’s state legislative sessions). Concluded Oregon: "There are too many unknowns to accurately analyze the impact" of Real ID.

Tremendous diversity of practices

The survey serves as an excellent reminder that America still remains at heart a federal system, and that Real ID is attempting to steamroll over the variety of ways states have chosen to issue licenses, promising even more complexity and disruption.

  • In Kentucky, licenses are issued over the counter by court clerk offices, rather than DMV employees.
  • Alabama: "In our state, probate judges and license commissioners act as agents of the state in issuing duplicate driver licenses."
  • Nebraska: "By statute we are tied to using the county treasurers (locally elected officials) as agents for the DMV. The counties issue all of the documents. This process does not lend itself well to complying with the new federal standards. Nebraska may have to consider extreme measures and possibly a complete reorganization."
  • In Oklahoma, "DL Examiners (state employees) verify documentation and authorize issuance of the DL/ID, which is done by a third party vendor. Oklahoma has 280 third party issuance sites."

In addition, many states face particular problems for implementation of Real ID. Oregon, for example, reported a statute (similar to those in some other states) "that allows police officers and other authorized personnel to use their agency address in lieu of their actual residence address. Will the Real ID Act stop us from allowing this?" Vermont reported that background checks for workers "is a huge issue. The Vermont State Employees Association (Union) may not wish to have their members undergo background checks."

Overall, the portrait that emerges from these survey responses is of a group of experts trying their best to anticipate and plan for a sweeping, ill-conceived law that threatens to bring incredible disruption to their states’ carefully constructed systems for the administration of driver’s licenses. "It is very difficult to put into just a few words the impact of the Real ID requirements," as the Nebraska respondent put it.


Unfortunately, although it is motor vehicle departments that are beginning to feel the heat now, it will ultimately be individuals – as drivers, taxpayers, citizens, or immigrants – who will pay the price for this misguided legislation.

A Decline in public service

Many DMVs around the nation have made great strides in recent years in improving customer service and reforming their image as the standard for a bad government bureaucracy. These service improvements have included such advances as shorter lines and waiting times, Internet ordering of renewals and replacement licenses, mobile service trucks, and many others.

However, according to the nation’s DMV administrators, Real ID will do away with many of these customer-friendly innovations.

  • Longer waits at the DMV. Many states predict increases in "customer wait times." Arizona, for example, reports that Real ID will bring increased "customer traffic flow and customer wait/visit time in all field offices" and New Jersey that it will have a "significant influence on customer service."
  • No more same-day licenses. Real ID "could largely prevent ‘instant’ or ‘over the counter’ (OTC) issuance of some or all of our DLs and IDs" in Illinois, and "will probably move Indiana from relatively instant issuance to having to mail documents to them." Nevada predicts that "the process for issuing a driver’s license or identification card could range from 2 to 6 weeks pending approval of verified documents."
  • Fewer offices. "Initial cost estimates indicate that . . .WI may have to close some itinerant field stations, especially if there are no federal funds available." (Wisconsin)
  • No more Internet or mail transactions. In Illinois Real ID "could reduce or end mail and Internet address changes and renewals"; likewise Virginia warns starkly that "Renewal through alternative methods will be eliminated."
  • Document inconvenience. "We will have to significantly reduce the number and type of acceptable documents used." (Illinois)
  • No more mobile offices. Real ID "may significantly limit mobile unit use, perhaps make mobiles impractical." (Illinois)

Higher Costs

Many of the respondents refer bitterly to the fact that Real ID will be enormously expensive, yet includes no funding from the federal government. Over and over again the state respondents ask, as Maine put it, "Who will pay the hundreds of millions or even billions which this currently unfunded federal mandate will cost in individual states and across the nation."

If Real ID goes forward, the DMVs will have to raise fees and turn to legislators to secure new funding so citizens aren’t left without identity documents that permit them to fly, enter federal courthouses, or carry out other necessary activities that count as "federal purposes" (a list that is sure to expand).  But beyond the DMVs’ struggle for funds lies the undeniable fact that when all is said and done, it will be the residents of the states who pay – not only in hassle, delay, and inconvenience, but in higher fees and/or taxes. Real ID’s supporters may have slid it through Congress without the proper democratic process, but that does not make it any less of a real nightmare, pure and simple.

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