Judy Owens thought she was on top of things when she went to renew her driver's license and get a REAL ID that will be needed to fly domestically or enter most federal buildings starting next October.
Instead, she found herself among the Montana residents facing delays of two months or longer in receiving the new cards because of high demand, staffing shortages and documentation glitches.
"I've told everybody I know: If you've got to get your license renewed, you better start checking," for appointments, the semi-retired East Helena resident said.
Montana was among the last states to resist the stricter federal requirements for driver's licenses approved following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with state lawmakers citing concerns about residents' privacy. They passed a bill in 2017 making REAL ID licenses an option, and the first ones became available to Montana residents in January.
With the Oct. 1, 2020, deadline looming by which people need a REAL ID, a passport or other identification that meets the same standards to board a domestic flight or enter a secure federal building, the demand for the licenses is rising and motor vehicle offices are getting backed up.
Currently, available appointments to get a REAL ID in Bozeman are about 10 weeks out. Helena appointments aren't available for nine weeks while the next appointments in Billings are eight weeks away, according to the scheduling website.
The crowded appointment calendars in those cities are due, in part, to staffing shortages, said Anastasia Burton, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, which includes the Motor Vehicle Division.
There are still some areas where vacancies exist, Burton said recently, "many new hires will be starting in the coming weeks."
State officials are considering opening driver's license exam stations outside of regular business hours and on weekends to deal with the backlog, said Sarah Garcia, administrator of the Motor Vehicle Division.
The state opened stations for walk-in renewal or replacement services in six major cities on Veteran's Day — a federal holiday. They issued about 300 licenses on Nov. 11.
Other delays have been caused because of the documents required to receive a REAL ID, especially if a person has changed his or her name.
In Owens' case, she arrived at the driver's license exam station with her current driver's license, her Social Security card and documentation of her address.
But her driver's license had both her maiden name and married name on it while her Social Security card just listed her married name, so the clerk told her she needed a copy of her marriage certificate. It took about a week to get that in the mail from Dawson County, Owens said.
Owens went back a second time as a walk-in because there were no appointments at the Helena office before her license was due to expire. She'd even looked for appointments in nearby Townsend and Butte, but was unable to find one before her early December birthday. She waited about 2 ½ hours before being able to see a clerk.
The most common proof of identification document people have is a certified birth certificate, said Michele Snowberger, general counsel for MVD and former driver services bureau chief. However, if they've changed their name for any reason — including marriage or adoption — they need to provide proof of that name change.
"We're constantly trying to make sure that our customers understand those complications and that we're able to assist with them," she said. Information, including a list of Frequently Asked Questions, is available at mtrealid.gov.
Also, the documents have to be official, certified or in the original format. A Social Security card can't be laminated. Marriage licenses and birth certificates must be certified, not copies, Snowberger said.
People without a Social Security card can verify their Social Security number with a W-2 tax form or a pay stub that includes their full Social Security number. Utility bills can be used to prove a physical address in the state of Montana.
Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 1, the state has issued a total of over 185,500 driver's licenses or state identification cards. Just over 37,000 of those are REAL ID compliant, for a 20% adoption rate, officials said.
A driver's license can be renewed and upgraded to a REAL ID starting six months before the resident's birthday in the year the license expires and for three months after. It costs $25 plus the cost of the normal license fee.
Those with non-expiring licenses who want to upgrade to a REAL ID can do so for $50, plus the $10 cost of replacing their license.
It usually takes a week or two to get the actual license in the mail, but it can take up to six weeks, officials said.
"If they get that appointment made and on the calendar, even if its six months from now ... at least they'll have it in their wallet by the time they need it," Garcia said.
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