In Our View: Lunacy in Licensing

Washington should require proof of U.S. residency for driver's license

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When 48 states pass a law and enforce it effectively to the benefit of the states' residents, lawmakers in the two exception states ought to get the message. We've made this point repeatedly — often with a mixture of derision and amusement — about Oregon being one of only two states that do not allow self-service gasoline. Indeed, how could those 48 other states be wrong?The same math exists in requiring proof of legal U.S. residency when applying for a driver's license. Unfortunately, our own state is one of just two that do not have this requirement. The other is New Mexico. There's a relatively easy compromise known as the Utah model: If you can't prove legal residency, you can still get a modified driver's license that is clearly stamped with "not valid for identification purposes." This would prevent what is currently believed to be a large wave of illegal immigrants coming to Washington, each obtaining a driver's license, then returning home and using the driver's license for legal identification.

Fortunately, both candidates for attorney general — Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson — support such a change in Washington law, according to a recent Associated Press story. Among gubernatorial candidates, Republican Rob McKenna supports such a law, but Democrat Jay Inslee prefers the status quo, the AP reports.

The best plan would be requiring proof of legal U.S. residence when applying for a driver's license. But the Utah model would be a good step in the right direction because it would at least address the legal-identification issue. Remember, valid ID is required in many important cases such as applying for government services, renting an apartment, cashing a check, applying for a job and boarding an airplane. As McKenna has said, "The idea that you should be able to obtain (a key identity document) without proving you're a legal resident of the country is seriously mistaken."

The Legislature has tried several times to take that good step in the right direction, most recently in 2011. Any accusation that the bill was an unfair attack on immigrants was powerfully shot down by the fact that the bill's bipartisan co-sponsorship included 11 Democrats and 28 Republicans. But the bill never made it out of committee.

Beyond the Legislature, citizens have tried to force the issue through the initiative process, but for several years in a row failed to obtain enough petition signatures to get the measure on the ballot.

In 2010, the state Department of Licensing changed the driver's license process by limiting the documents that prove Washington residency (not necessarily legal U.S. residency) to only a few such as rental agreements or utility bills. That helps a little; it generally keeps out-of-staters from obtaining driver's licenses here for nefarious purposes. But it falls short of the greater goal: proving legal U.S. residency.

If the next attorney general is willing to move in this direction — and both finalists say they are motivated in such a way — and if bipartisan support for change can grow in the Legislature, then Washington could shed the embarrassment that comes with the "two vs. 48" status.