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A national ID card could empower U.S. citizens

Published Feb. 22, 2006

As states get ready to comply with a law passed last May and roll out Real ID cards (think 50 flavors of enhanced drivers' licenses that will also, for lack of anything more suitable, regulate access to airplanes, bars and banks), it might be time to consider a national identification card. Unfortunately, two camps own the conversation.

Security heavies and cultural conservatives say a national ID is necessary to protect us from Islamic terrorists and illegal immigrants. Libertarians and government-wary leftists fret about privacy. Progressives and moderates have never shown much enthusiasm for the debate. But there are lots of reasons they should find the idea of a national ID appealing. Among them:

Health care: Today, if you go to the emergency room, your medical history is whatever you remember to tell your doctor. Health care reformers long to build an electronic health database so medical records can follow patients wherever they go. Congress passed legislation in 1996 to safeguard just such a database. A national ID network could provide the backbone, and the security.

Voter empowerment: In 2004, Republican Party officials sent thousands of volunteers to challenge voters at the polls. They claimed Democrats were registering felons, illegal immigrants and people with fake names. Democrats said Republicans were trying to discourage voting in Democratic-leaning counties. Enough already: a national ID could replace voter registration bureaucracy and speed all citizens to the polls.

Poverty: Without a stable address or the cash to pay registration fees, the homeless struggle to get a valid photo ID. Even the working poor can find themselves without ID if a few parking tickets hit at the wrong time, and their drivers' licenses are suspended. A national ID would make it easier for the now officially anonymous to claim benefits, apply for work, get health care, cash a check, enter a government building or open a savings account.

Education: The No Child Left Behind Act relies on broad and potentially misleading measures to guess at school quality, because there is no way to track individual children from grade to grade and see how they progress. School districts have no way to know which students quit school and which ones have just moved across town, which means federal accountability schemes have no way of factoring in dropout rates. A national ID database could allow for more honest accounting.

Social welfare: The tangle of agencies that work with the disadvantaged have no good way to share data. It was only a decade ago, for example, that researchers began proving that federal spending to reduce homelessness cuts costs in the prison, health care and welfare systems. A national ID database might lead to better allocation of resources, and quicker responses to emerging needs.

Immigration: A national ID would help Immigration and Customs Enforcement shift its emphasis off impoverished undocumented workers and onto the often unscrupulous businessmen who hire them. For now, if a businessman, a farmer or a labor contractor gets pulled over driving a truckload of illegal immigrants, they can play dumb - even if they sold the workers their fake ID cards.

All this is not to dismiss privacy concerns. They are huge. But the notion of a national ID created to empower citizens, rather than just monitor us and protect us from foreigners, might inspire progressives and centrists to design a card that works. Or at least broaden the conversation.

Douglas McGray is a fellow at the New America Foundation.

The New York Times