Even COVID-19 Couldn't Kill REAL ID

The ID overhaul, presented as a national security safeguard more than 15 years ago, still hasn't been fully implemented.


It has been more than 15 years since Congress passed the REAL ID Act. Presented as a national security safeguard, the law requires that American citizens and legal residents have a specific type of identification, incorporating proof of not just their identity but their citizenship, to enter federal buildings or board domestic flights.

Implementation of REAL ID has been a real mess. The National Conference of State Legislatures initially estimated that 245 million government-issued IDs would need to be replaced at a cost of $11 billion. To get these new IDs, applicants have to provide additional proof that they are citizens or lawful U.S. residents.

Unsurprisingly, many states and citizens have resisted these requirements. While compliance was always intended to be phased in, the slow pace of implementation has prompted the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to repeatedly delay REAL ID enforcement. The first deadline, imposed with 120 days' notice, was May 2008. When states missed that deadline, it was extended to December 2009, then May 2011, then January 2013, then October 2020.

The federal government pushed that last deadline back to October 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. States across the country had shut down motor vehicle departments, the main source of state-issued IDs, and told people not to leave their homes unless they had to.

In spring 2021, as travel started picking up, the DHS noted that compliance with the REAL ID program was still quite poor. Only 43 percent of state-issued driver's licenses and ID cards met REAL ID standards. States such as California and Illinois weren't fully compliant with the standards until 2019 and New Jersey and Oklahoma until 2020.

If the DHS actually tried to enforce the law, federal agents would have to turn away huge numbers of air travelers. Recognizing that problem, the DHS announced in April that airports would delay checking passengers for REAL ID compliance until May 2023. Assuming that deadline is not extended yet again, it will have taken 18 years to begin enforcing one of the law's two main provisions.

In the two decades since the September 11 attacks, the absence of REAL ID enforcement has not made domestic flights more vulnerable to terrorism.  Meanwhile, the federal government and the states have not been able to implement REAL ID at scale, and the general public does not seem to see a need for it. The next time Congress debates the future of REAL ID, it should repeal the requirement for good.