Election puts spotlight on driver's license system

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SEATTLE — The races for governor and attorney general have brought renewed attention to a proposal that would create a two-tiered driver’s license system in Washington to address the issue of driving by immigrants who can’t provide proof of legal U.S. residency.

Washington and New Mexico remain the only two states in the country not to require proof of legal U.S. residency when applying for a driver’s license.

Under the proposal known as the Utah model, a person who can’t prove U.S. residency can get a permit that allows them to drive, but that document is not a valid identification.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna backs the idea, and attorney general candidates Republican Reagan Dunn and Democrat Bob Ferguson speak of it favorably.

“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,” McKenna said during a debate in Yakima earlier this month.

McKenna’s opponent, Democrat Jay Inslee, has said he prefers keeping Washington’s current system in place.

Over the years, this has been a contentious issue in Olympia.

Immigrant groups argue that when illegal immigrants have access to driver’s licenses, it creates safer roads and allows them to buy insurance. Opponents say failing to ask for proof of U.S. residency invites identity fraud and could end up putting noncitizens in the state’s voter rolls.

In Utah, one industry that relies heavily on immigrant labor hasn’t seen much change since the law there was passed in 2005.

“Certainly there are labor shortages in our agricultural community, but we didn’t feel (the driver’s license law) had a significant impact,” said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy at the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. “It has not had an immediate or significant impact on the agriculture community.”

According to Utah Driver License Division data, the number of people applying for the Driving Privilege Card has steadily climbed since 2005, from 21,600 to 38,997 in 2011. It peaked at 43,000 in 2008. That same year a state audit found that more than 75 percent of people who had the driving permit also had active car insurance, comparable to the 82 percent rate of drivers with a regular license.

In Washington, numerous bills to require proof of U.S. residency have been filed but have never made it the floor of any legislative chamber in recent memory. A bill using the Utah model was introduced in 2011, but did not make it out of committee.

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