REAL ID samples from the Department of Homeland Security (notice the star on the right hand corner)

Why REAL ID Might Make It Real Hard To Vote In 2020

But not if you take a few steps now to make sure you’re prepared.

Eric J Scholl
Oct 14, 2019 · 6 min read

For most people, this change shouldn’t make much of a difference. But for many others, it really could. Especially if you’re a new driver. Or if you’re moving to a different state. Or if your license is set to expire between now and Election Day 2020, and your state requires you to switch over from a standard license or state ID to a REAL ID.

Most of the media coverage of REAL ID so far has centered on flying. Because starting next October, you won’t be able to board a commercial airline flight anymore with a “regular” driver’s license. (You know, the kind most people have right now). And this new form of ID will be one of the only documents accepted by the federal government to fly. Alternatively, you can show items like a passport. This is the culmination of an effort that came out of the 9/11 Commission to set federal security standards for identification, instead of leaving it up to individual states.

But with a Presidential election coming up just a month or so after the new REAL ID rules are set to go into effect, it could have a profound impact on voting as well.

That’s because getting a REAL ID license in most cases involves an in-person visit to a government office like the Division of Motor Vehicles, with a specific set of documents at the ready. Compare that experience to a usually simple driver’s license renewal, which in most states can be done completely by mail or online.

And state motor vehicle divisions, which in most cases are responsible for applications, aren’t necessarily equipped for the floods of people who are or will be coming in to get their new REAL ID licenses. Since a personal appearance is required, it’s like everybody’s going to have to get a driver’s license all over again for the first time. (Minus the road test.)

So they’re already getting backed up, and it’s only going to get worse as the October 1 deadline nears. Meaning if your license is set to expire next year, and you use a driver’s license or state photo ID in your state to vote, you might want to apply for your REAL ID as soon as you can, or otherwise make sure you have some other acceptable voter ID form handy. Because you might not get that new license in time (and expired licenses often are not accepted at the polls). It’s a mixed bag for the 7 voter ID states that are requiring people to get REAL ID whenever their current licenses expire. Among them, Georgia should let you vote even if your Driver’s License is expired; Colorado won’t. Even then it gets murky: because state motor vehicle offices will often take or disfigure your old license, and then give you a temporary one until your REAL ID arrives in the mail. It’s likely that the temporary receipt can’t be used as a voter ID.

The nonpartisan group VoteRiders has good information about what’ll be required and/or accepted in each individual state. So you can click here, and look yours up.

We got our REAL ID license recently, in Massachusetts (which doesn’t require a REAL ID, so long as you’re OK with no flying or using some ID other than a driver’s license to fly). And frankly it was a breeze: took less than an hour to apply, and then came in the mail 9 days later. But friends who live in New York and California tell us a very different story. In New York right now it’s nearly impossible to get an appointment with the Division of Motor Vehicles (we went on their website and checked), and our friend who did it as a walk-in, said it took him nearly an entire day. A friend in California reports next available appointments are several weeks away. And this, with almost a year to go before the new rules go into effect.

Also, we showed up fully prepared with documents and backup documents. Including what we’ve come to refer to as the “Holy Trinity of I.D.”: our passport, our Social Security card, and copies of 2 acceptable proofs of residency. If you bring a birth certificate, make sure you have the original or a certified copy. Which might not be that difficult, but almost certainly will require a time-consuming process with a federal or local agency.

Even then, since Massachusetts needs to scan in all the documents on a specific type of scanner they use, our Social Security card would not have been accepted had it been laminated, which we know many people do. The person processing our application also was not thrilled with a print-out of an online bank statement. Fortunately we’d brought along a mailed copy of a cable bill as a backup. So keep that in mind too, because something as simple as “going green”, as we do with most of our statements these days, might’ve caused us trouble. (Some states do allow photocopies of your residency documents).

Also, all names on all documents must match. So had we provided our birth certificate and we’d changed our name, as the result of marriage or anything else, we would’ve had to document this with originals or certified copies of all those name changes too.

One thing we want to make sure we’re very clear about: for many people, the switch to REAL ID won’t matter much at all in terms of voting. But that’s why it’s important to check the expiration or renewal date on your license. And, of course, check out your state’s voter ID requirements.

Many states don’t require photo ID to vote, and because states individually administer elections, even those that do should accept “old school” licenses. No state has yet to get really clever with voter ID laws, and require only REAL ID in order to vote. So as long as it’s valid, your current state driver’s license should still work, even if it doesn’t meet the new federal standards.

President Trump, earlier this year, Tweeted about the need for a nationwide voter ID requirement (even though states would still individually manage elections), and he’d presumably lean toward something like this more stringent form of ID. But nothing like that’s happened yet.

Still, if you live in a state that’s requiring all its citizens get a federally compliant REAL ID, and you need to renew your driver’s license between now and November 3, 2020, or are getting a license for the first time, or are moving from a different state, you could be left out in the cold if you’re not careful.

As we mentioned above, that’s because you generally won’t be able to renew online or by mail, you’ll need to visit the DMV, and you might need to bring additional or different documentation than you’ve needed before. (Which we’ve also enumerated above).

As the deadline nears, expect longer wait times and longer processing times.

So since we’re a political newsletter, our final question is could problems and delays generated by backups in obtaining the documents required for REAL ID favor one party over another?

Wouldn’t this affect Democrats and Republicans equally? Probably not. Because anything that reduces the overall number of voters tends to favor Republicans. Also, people who live in urban areas — who tend to vote Democrat — don’t drive as much, so might not be as vigilant about updating their licenses or state ID.

As with most things in life, if you’re prepared, you should be OK. Though it seems with voting these days, it doesn’t always work out that way. And procrastination is never the voter’s friend. It especially isn’t now.

Get smarter at building your thing. Join The Startup’s +794K followers.

Sign up for Top 10 Stories

By The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Subscribe to receive The Startup's top 10 most read stories — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Eric J Scholl

Written by

The Startup
Eric J Scholl

Written by

Peabody award winning journalist. Streaming media pioneer. Played @ CBGB back in the day. Editor-In-Chief "The Chaos Report" www.thechaosreport.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +794K followers.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store