Consumerist’s Karin Price Mueller — herself a New Jersey resident and the proud owner of a non-standard name — has been writing about this problem for years in the Newark Star Ledger’s Bamboozled column.
When she first wrote about it in 2009, the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission’s suggestion for a man whose last name is Dello Russo — which the state’s computer spits out as D. Russo — was to have him spend $1,000 to legally have his last name changed so that it was one word. The MVC couldn’t even offer him the option of hyphenating the name. Ultimately, it agreed to squash the two halves of his last name into one, but now his license doesn’t exactly match his other forms of identification.
You would think that in nearly five years, the state might have improved something, but you’d be wrong. Just ask the woman who recently moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey only to find that her first name, Hao Ling, had been changed to “Hao L.” because in spite of all the Mary Anns and Ann Maries in New Jersey, the MVC’s computers still haven’t figured out that some people have two parts to their first names.
When the MVC clerk explained that the computers turn two-part first names into a first name and a middle initial, Hao Ling asked if they could just run the two halves together into one name for her license.
“She then went back and spoke to another lady and returned, insisting that I would have to get my name combined on my documentation in order for them to consider this as a first name,” she recalls. “In a post-9/11 world where everyone but NJ MVC seems to care about all legal documents matching names, I began to fret.”
Having no other recourse, she took the “Hao L.” license and left the MVC office.
Hao Ling then spoke to someone at a passport office about this naming issue. A clerk there gave her the U.S. State Department’s guidance on Cambodian names so she could show the MVC that Cambodian naming conventions don’t use middle names. But a rep for the MVC told her this was “not relevant” and she’d need to speak to immigration officials about getting her name legally changed to be a single word.
It’s worth noting that her concern wasn’t just a matter of having a license that accurately represented her name. Hao Ling had previously been the victim of ID theft, and because her name without the “Ling” is incredibly common, she had been accidentally linked to others with the same name and bad credit. Thus, it helps to have ID that exactly matches other forms of identification so you can prove to bureaucrats that you are who you claim to be.
And it’s not just people with hyphenated or two-part names that are limited by New Jersey’s horribly out of date system. The MVC database only allows for up to nine characters for a first name, so someone with my incredibly common first name of Christopher is shortened to “Christoph.” And anyone with a name like D’angelo has that apostrophe stripped right out to form “Dangelo.”
It’s like Ellis Island, but without the cute wool caps.
“We’re dealing with a database dating back to the 1980s,” a rep for the MVC actually admitted to Bamboozled, while adding that the agency is testing an update that would allow the database to eventually accept crazy things like spaces, hyphens and apostrophes. “If the planets all align, we’re hoping that by 2016 this should all be cleared up.”
Until then, we’re just going to refer to New Jersey as Newjersey.