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About The Issue > Real Example: The Alabama Mess

The Alabama Mess: One State Tries To Begin Tackling Real ID

State administrators, governors, and others have been warning about the disruption and chaos that actual implementation of Real ID will likely bring. This is not mere speculation, however – one attempt to begin initiating early compliance with the law already created such enormous confusion and disruption that it had to be halted.

One of the Real ID Act’s requirements is that names on compliant driver’s licenses must exactly match individuals’ names as held by the Social Security Administration. Noting this, officials in Alabama decided to get a head start on complying with that aspect of the law. The state’s motor vehicles department (the Department of Public Safety or DPS), began sending letters to individuals whose records were mismatched, demanding that they correct the "erroneous" information on their driver’s licenses.

The result was a fiasco. Thousands of panicked Alabama residents jammed DPS offices worried that they would lose their right to drive. And, because the state began its records review with the oldest records, many of the reported 65,000-80,000 drivers who got letters were senior citizens.

Many recipients of the letter – some of whom had been driving for 50 years or longer -  became panicked that they would lose their means of traveling around the largely rural state. Many elderly drivers were also reportedly worried that their Social Security checks or pensions would be interrupted if they did not "fix" the problem right away. "Here are people who have been law-abiding citizens all their lives, and then they get this letter," state legislator Neal Morrison told the Associated Press. "It scared them to death."

Anyone whose name as recorded by the motor vehicles department differed by the slightest amount from the way their name was recorded by the Social Security Administration received a letter. Recipients were instructed that they had to visit a DPS office to "correct" their data before they would be allowed to renew their license. That included, for example, women who had changed their last name on one card but not the other after a marriage or divorce, people with nicknames, and even those with slight variations in their names, such as a middle initial appearing on one but not the other. In quintessential bureaucratic fashion, the letter informed individuals that the name as listed on their driver’s license – though it might well be a person’s preferred form of address – was "erroneous."

Many citizens were also angered by the delays and fees that they encountered when they tried to comply with the letter. One 70-year-old woman had to go to the motor vehicles office for three days straight, the AP reported, finally obtaining a new license on the third day after a two-and-a-half-hour wait. Then, she was asked to pay an $18 fee – the state’s standard payment for a new or duplicate license – and she "hit the ceiling."Another cost for many was the need to pay additional fees to obtain a new or replacement birth certificate.

Apologetic DPS officials halted the effort in the face of all these problems (including calls from state legislators who had heard from their constituents), and promised to try to lessen the problems by clarifying their explanations of the situation in future letters. Nevertheless, the fact remained that the cause of the disruption was not going to go away: the looming reality of the REAL ID Act. As the Alabama officials explained, "Public Safety regrets the inconvenience, aggregation and confusion this has caused licensed drivers, but we are mandated to do this by federal law."

Alabama’s unfortunate experience trying to get a jump on implementing just one aspect of the sprawling Real ID legislation is merely a glimpse of what states and their residents can expect over the next few years if implementation of this legislation proceeds as scheduled. Bureaucratic hair-splitting, confusing instructions, long waits, overwhelmed offices, missed work, infuriating bureaucratic runarounds, and additional fees are what this legislation promises for Americans. All for – what?


M.J. Ellington, "Your life on your license: Alabama a step ahead in national ID debate," The Decatur Daily News, May 13, 2005.

Mark Harrison, "License confusion possible," [Fort Payne, Alabama] Times-Journal, October 1, 2005.

Alan Elsner, "Road to digital driver’s licenses chaotic," Reuters, October 10, 2005.

Associated Press and Decatur Daily News staff, "Alabama puts brakes on license notification," October 7, 2005.

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