Cindi Ross Scoppe

No passport? No military ID? You could soon be grounded

Come January, you won’t be able to get onto Fort Jackson or other military bases with a SC driver’s license, because the Legislature prohibited the state from complying with a federal anti-terrorism law. A year later, SC licenses can’t be used to board a plane.
Come January, you won’t be able to get onto Fort Jackson or other military bases with a SC driver’s license, because the Legislature prohibited the state from complying with a federal anti-terrorism law. A year later, SC licenses can’t be used to board a plane.

AFTER 9/11, FEDERAL officials realized that one of our nation’s biggest security gaps was in our driver’s licenses, which are frequently used to board planes, are issued by the states and weren’t particularly secure. These are, after all, the documents that 18-year-olds manage to forge in order to buy beer.

The federal government wasn’t about to do what a security expert might recommend — take over the license-issuing process itself — for a lot of reasons, both reasonable and not. So in 2004, the Congress passed and then-President George W. Bush signed the Real ID Act, which told states that they had to make their driver’s licenses more tamper-resistant.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone who’s worried about terrorism — or even illegal immigrants who are not terrorists — could object to the idea that it ought to take more ingenuity than that of a college fraternity to counterfeit the IDs we use to board planes and enter military bases and nuclear facilities.

And yet, South Carolina objected.

Under the leadership of then-Gov. Mark Sanford, South Carolina was among the most vociferous of objectors, with black-helicopter visions of a national ID card that would allow the federal government to access our personal information. You know, the sort of information that’s held by national retail chains and credit card companies and banks, and all the people who hack into their accounts, or into our cell phones.

In 2007, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting state compliance. That’s not precisely nullification, because states were free to ignore the law — in return for federal officials refusing to accept their driver’s licenses as identification to board planes or enter military bases or federal buildings.

By 2008, South Carolina was one of just four states that had not sought and been granted extra time to comply with the new law, and Mr. Sanford wrote to the Department of Homeland Security declaring that he would not allow the state to comply.

There followed a nod, nod, wink, wink game in which Homeland Security “interpreted” Mr. Sanford’s letter as a request for an extension — and it kept interpreting it that way so many times over the years that most people sort of forgot about the dispute.

The Department of Homeland Security did not forget.

Earlier this year, it informed our state and eight others that come Jan. 22, 2018, our driver’s licenses could no longer be used to board commercial airplanes. That’s a good ways off, but the first shoe drops next month, when an S.C. driver’s license will no longer be acceptable for entry into federal buildings, military bases and nuclear power plants.

If you have a military ID or a passport, you’ll still be fine. If not, well, good luck with that.

South Carolina had three primary objections to Real ID.

The first was the cost, projected in 2008 to be $16 million up front and $10 million a year. Experts in other states suggest that the cost would be significantly lower today, particularly since our state has already added holograms, threads and other security measures to make our licenses more difficult to alter.

The second objection concerned the requirement that states verify the identities of drivers, generally using a birth certificate, even people who have had a license for 20, 30, even 50 years. That would be inconvenient for a lot of people.

So it wasn’t unreasonable to push back, to ask the Congress to fund at least part of this unfunded mandate and provide some wiggle room on documentation for people who had licenses for decades — just like it would have been reasonable for our Legislature to provide some wiggle room for South Carolinians who had voted for decades, when it tried to require them to show a photo ID in order to continue doing so.

It’s not clear that South Carolina or other states ever seriously attempted to get reasonable modifications to the law, in part because the biggest objection had nothing to do with reasonable, legitimate concerns. The biggest objection was that black-helicopter fear of a national database — which the law did not authorize and, 12 years later, no one has attempted to assemble. What the law does is make it easier for states to do what they’ve always done: share driver’s license information.

This isn’t the first time our state has failed to comply with a long-passed federal law. The inability of the state Department of Social Services to build an automated child-support enforcement system that complies with a 1988 federal law has to be the most baffling case of incompetency in state history.

But the state is trying to comply with that law. And the only punishment is fines, which the Legislature absorbs by simply not providing services it otherwise might provide. So most of us don’t feel the penalty.

The current dispute involves the willful, deliberate decision by our elected officials to ignore federal law.

The penalties for our Legislature’s wilfulness will be borne, painfully, by many average South Carolinians. And barring action by our Legislature, the federal government has absolutely no choice but to impose those penalties, as promised.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.