Why can’t we fix the DMV?

Assemblymember Phil Ting is taking on a problem that affects almost everyone in the state -- and that plays right into the Republicans' hands.

State Assemblymember Phil Ting is taking on an issue that has pretty much everyone in California angry right now – the lines at the DMV – and he seems to be the only one willing to do something about it.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who doesn’t have to wait in the DMV line and probably hasn’t in many years, cares nothing about this. Lite Guv Gavin Newsom, who is likely our next governor, has said zero about the issue.

Actually, no — you’re not.

And while I’m not a proponent of people driving, the DMV is a lot more than a motor-vehicle permit shop: The vast majority of Californians have to go through that agency to get the ID card that allows them to board an airplane, get a bank account, visit a family member in jail, or do any of the hundreds of other things that require a state-issued ID.

In California, there is only one that works, and it comes from the DMV.

I have been told that I am a bad socialist because I hate waiting in lines, and I’ve had my own bad DMV experiences in the past couple of months — but I am still able to stand for long periods, last several hours between bathroom breaks, and take time off from work without a penalty.

The lines are a huge deal to a lot of people. If it takes five hours to get your ID, you have to miss an entire day of work. You need to pay someone to take care of your kids or your parents or others who need your support. You are trapped in line; seniors have no place to sit down, there’s no water, you can’t get to the bathroom – this is no joke.

“Elderly people, caregivers, people with families – they can’t be in line like this,” Nannette Miranda, communications director for Ting, told me.

And remember: This isn’t a hot new restaurant or club, or even a vacation trip at the airport. You don’t like the lines, you can skip those things. The vast majority of Californians, particularly working-class Californians, have no choice but to deal with the DMV to get the ID they need to function in society.

Meanwhile, the poor workers at the DMV, who are trying their best to deal with angry customers and strict rules (forgot that one piece of paper? Sorry you had to wait five hours; the law says you have to start again, another day) that they didn’t write, get nothing but abuse.

It’s gotten so much worse because the feds want to change the rules for getting a state ID; everyone now has to present even more paperwork, even more documents, and it takes even longer.

This is the world capital of technology. We are a rich state. There is no reason this has to happen.

Ting ran into this himself, when he showed up for an 8am appointment in San Francisco – and saw the lines around the block.

From his press release:

“What Californians are experiencing at our DMVs is unacceptable,” said Ting. “It’ll get worse if we don’t fix it now because more and more Californians will be switching from their current driver license or state ID to the new federally-compliant Real ID card.” 

The state Legislature gave the DMV $16 million more this year to address the crowding. They will add more Saturday hours, make it possible to start (but not complete) your application online. That’s all fine.

But really: Why is there only one DMV office to serve nearly 800,000 people in San Francisco? There ought to be at least three.

Why are there no DMV outreach workers who can go to senior centers, community centers, the homes of those who can’t get out easily, and provide services there?

Why, with the secure servers that exist today, can’t you do almost all of this online?

Why is this essential public service effectively rationed – by who has the time and physical ability to stand in line?

Ting is going to hold a hearing Aug. 7, to “get to the nitty gritty of why this is happening,” Miranda told me. But I think it’s clear why this is happening; The DMV vastly underprepared for the Real ID crush – and nobody in the Governor’s Office cares enough about the working people who are suffering from the outcome to do anything about it.

Instead, we have a situation that should make the Republicans really happy: People are angry at and losing faith in the ability of government to provide an essential service. They are furious about the bureaucracy. And the private sector is looking for ways to take this over.

A hearing is good, but it’s just a start. We need legislation to overhaul this entire process of getting a state ID. Like so many things, the state has gone to such great lengths to prevent what is really a very small chance of fraud that it’s made the vast majority of law-abiding folks miserable.

(And if you are really worried about fraud? It’s probably easier these days to get a fake ID than a real one. Which is ridiculous.)