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The ID War: Do You Have Yours?

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SOURCE: AP/Lisa Poole

A passenger verifies his ID at Logan airport in Boston, MA.

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As hurricane season began last month, Border Patrol officers informed residents of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas that, in the case of an emergency, they would be checking evacuees’ documents for valid IDs before permitting them to board evacuation buses. And in Indiana, 12 nuns were turned away from voting booths during the presidential primary because they lacked state identification. ID regulations like these highlight the growing ID divide between those who have identification, and those who do not—primarily immigrants, minorities, students, the poor, disabled persons, and the elderly.

The number of ID checks has climbed sharply in recent years, but our elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels are divided about what to do about it. These divisions are most visible in the recent debate about the REAL ID—legislation that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bush, which imposes strict security, authentication, and issuance standards for state drivers’ licenses and ID cards.

Proponents of REAL ID and similar legislation at the local level want stricter identification systems mainly to fight terrorism and limit immigration. Others are skeptical for security, privacy, and civil liberties reasons, of programs that require proof of ID. About 20 million voting age citizens in our country right now do not have driver’s licenses. And minorities are particularly at risk of being disenfranchised by these proposals.

According to a 2006 survey by the Brennan Center, 25 percent of voting-age African Americans nationwide have no current government-issued photo ID, compared to just 8 percent of white voting-age citizens. A Georgia study also found that Hispanics are twice as likely as whites not to have a government-issued photo ID. Hispanic citizens born outside of the United States often face significant barriers to obtaining ID consistent with the challenges facing foreign-born citizens generally. And of course, there are the 12 million undocumented immigrants who live among us. While some states in the past had granted licenses to anyone who provided proof of residency, that is already changing as the REAL ID regulations take effect.

But it’s not just immigrants and minorities that are negatively affected. The legally blind or disabled, older Americans who no longer drive, teenagers who can’t afford the cost of acquiring a driver’s license, poor families without the means to afford the costs associated with maintaining a driver’s license, and the millions living in cities with public mass transit systems who do not have cars are also on the wrong side of the ID divide.

There are, without a doubt, circumstances where strong identification must be required, particularly as it relates to national and homeland security. But what is needed is a process of careful vetting and due diligence to ensure that all people are treated fairly and equally and that identification systems take into consideration the effects on society as a whole. The next president and administration will face crucial choices about whether or how to continue implementing REAL ID and similar legislation.

Clearly, policies such as requiring identification for evacuation during an emergency without ID put people’s lives in danger. And all U.S. citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote. But until a due diligence process is established to address recurring problems with the current and proposed identification programs, make sure you don’t leave home without your ID.

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