From the February 2003 Idaho Observer:

Man fights to correct name in goverment databases

by The Idaho Observer

To borrow and slightly modify a line from Frank Zappa, “The crux of this bureaucratic biscuit is the apostrophe.” The story below may seem trivial at first -- until you realize the implications. If government bureaucrats can change the name of Patrick J. O'Sullivan to Patrick O. Sullivan to minimize errors or conserve computer storage space, then what is to prevent them from eventually getting rid of our silly names altogether and assigning us a number -- for their own convenience? Furthermore, bureaucrats who refuse to reproduce our legal names on legal documents and insist upon changing them in whatever way is most convenient for them, merely confirm our suspicions: That as a class of people in America, bureaucrats have become so arrogant and discompassionate toward the people they serve that they no longer recognize the importance of names. Patrick J. O'Sullivan has decided to remind the state of Idaho's bureaucrats that they, too, are people. The state of Idaho really got Patrick J. “Paddy” O'Sullivan's Irish up when its various departments refused to reproduce his name correctly on official documents.

The matter becomes even more complicated when his name appears differently depending upon whether its a driver's license, fishing license, boat registration, vehicle registration or property tax statement.

“It would be pretty tough to get across the border and visit Canada right now with the mess Idaho has made of my ID,” O'Sullivan explained.

O'Sullivan, 49, a retired cop living in Post Falls, was born Patrick J. O'Sullivan and has always been Patrick J. O'Sullivan. He got irritated with his several identities and began the process of calling and writing the agencies that had been perverting his name. Idaho Department of Licensing Director Ed Pemble responded by explaining that, “The name O'Sullivan, Mac Donald, or De Santes, is not legally changed when entered in the automated system to issue a drive's license or vehicle registration in the name of OSULLIVAN, MACDONALD, or DESANTES. Regardless of the way names are entered into, or printed from a DMV system, the person's legal name does not change.”

Pemble further justified the alteration of names by explaining that, “Drivers' license name formatting must adhere to the national standards of the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) AAMVAnet Data Directory, and the national Commercial Driver's License System (CDLIS).”

Pemble's letter closed by stating that name formatting requirements are described in Idaho Department of Administration (IDAPA) Rule 39.02.75 100.1 and by explaining that name formatting standards, “...were adopted to save data storage space, make system inquiry procedures more efficient, reduce errors, and minimize cost.”

“I think Pemble's letter was intended to brush me off. Since I sent him another letter stating that I will pursue this matter until the state spells peoples' names correctly -- and because Senator Larry Craig gave him a call -- Pemble has been much more willing to see about correcting the problem,” O'Sullivan explained.

What's in a name?

Many ethnic names of Irish, Scottish, French, Italian, Arabic or Oriental origin have apostrophes or spaces in them.

O'Sullivan explained that in Ireland many O'Sullivans gave up the O' to please the British Crown so they could get potatoes and other food to eat. “The O' offended the Crown and when these poor people gave up the O' they were marked amongst their own.”

Peoples' names are spelled a certain way for a reason, O'Sullivan said, and added that the state has no right to change the spelling of peoples' names for their own record keeping and data entry convenience. In his letter to Pemble, O'Sullivan said, “I will not give up my O or the ' -- you can keep your potatoes. This is Idaho and I can plant my own potatoes. The soil in the north of this state is good enough for me. You may want to try some of my potatoes and give me in return my name back on legal documents and stop the oppression that was done in times past.”

Why can't bureaucrats type an apostrophe?

Pemble cited data storage concerns, system inquiry efficiency, error reduction and budget sensitivity as the main reasons for omitting spaces and apostrophes in peoples' names.

1. Computer memory is much less expensive today than it was in previous decades when computers were spelling names correctly.

2. Programmers have been writing programs that recognize the proper spelling of peoples' names for some 40 years.

3. Governments waste billions of taxpayer dollars annually and saving a few dollars here and there by omitting spaces and apostrophes in peoples' names is not a priority of government.

The three reasons mentioned above are actually excuses and not the real reason for the omitted spaces and apostrophes. That leaves error reduction as the only reason left standing. Said another way, government is altering peoples' names because data entry personnel are incompetent.

Unshakable resolve

In his letter to Pemble, O'Sullivan explained that he and his brother, also a retired cop, are prepared to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. “I am confident that the United States Supreme court will rule in our favor on this issue,” he told Pemble.

O'Sullivan views the removal of a space or an apostrophe from a person's name as tantamount to removing a star or a stripe from the U.S. flag. He has no interest in suing anyone or spending his retirement years fighting the name issue. However, he feels the issue is so important that he will not give up until government agrees to spell peoples' names correctly. Every member of his immediate family, his wife and three children, are also having their names altered on state documents. “We only ask that state agencies reproduce our names correctly and uniformly on all of our documents.  I really don't think that is too much to ask,” O'Sullivan said.


O'Sullivan believes that the state now recognizes the importance of referring to people by their proper names, at least from a public relations perspective, and will correct the problem. It is possible that computers can be programmed to allow data entry personnel the error-reducing luxury of omitting spaces and apostrophes while printing names correctly on documents.

“You are no better than the English of days past,” O'Sullivan told Pemble in his letter.;“ Even England in this day and age would not do as you have done. You are taking us back in history with your current policies.”

While O'Sullivan believes that the problem will be solved at the state level, he expects to incur resistance at the county clerk's office. Ironically, the Kootenai County Clerk's name is Dan English.

O'Sullivan believes that most states are perverting peoples' names for data entry convenience. He is interested in networking with others to solve this problem nationally. He can be contacted via email at

He would be happy to forward copies of the entertaining electronic correspondence that got Pemble's attention. He can also be reached by phone at (208) 777-1054.

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