Commentary Politics

Transgender Voters Face Barriers to the Ballot: Here’s What Can Help

Katelyn Burns

Everyone should have a say in who represents us in government, but right now, that right does not fully extend to the trans community.

As I waited in line to vote last November, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. My state representative, who was doing some last-minute campaigning, even flirted with me a little. It was awkward. When the line finally moved along and it was my turn, I smoothed out my skirt but could barely squeak out my male legal name—then the poll worker asked me to repeat it louder.

She had no reaction and calmly handed me a ballot. I was one of the lucky ones.

The 2016 election season caught me mid-transition. I had filed a petition to change my name with the court in mid-June, but my hearing to make it official wasn’t scheduled until December. I had already made my social transition by November—meaning I changed the names and pronouns that people around me would use and my style of dress without changing my name or gender legally—and most people couldn’t tell that I was trans. 

Unlike 34 other states, my home state of Maine does not require voters to show a form of identification to cast a ballot. If they had required a photo ID, my right to vote may have been contested by a local election observer. My photo ID showed a 320-pound man, not the thin woman I had transitioned into. And my birth name is very rarely used as a girl’s name.

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But for too many trans people in the United States, voting is out of reach. A study published just before the 2016 elections by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that strict voter ID laws in eight states could potentially disenfranchise more than 34,000 transgender voters that election cycle. With both voter ID laws and restrictions on updating gender markers on official IDs becoming increasingly commonplace, many transgender people struggle to make their voices heard at the ballot box. The voter ID laws that are already in place have an especially chilling effect on people of color and those with lower incomes, which leaves trans people of color especially vulnerable to disenfranchisement.

According to Jordan Evans, a local elections official and a trans woman based in Massachusetts, having documents that don’t accurately reflect their identity is the biggest threat to trans people’s access to the polls. “Failure to allow trans people the ability to access the proper channels to change their legally recognized name ahead of an election could potentially lead to anything from traumatic experiences at the polls to someone’s voter status being contested outright, especially during a time where accusations of voter fraud are being heralded from our highest level of government,” said Evans. (Disclosure: The author of this piece and Evans briefly dated earlier this year.)

Given the nationwide focus on voter suppression by the Trump administration and the GOP at large, potential barriers to voting are likely to only increase. Trump signed an executive order in May forming a task force to investigate voter fraud that includes election officials with a history of suppressing votes, like Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), vice chair of the new committee. The administration’s claims of rampant voter fraud have been shown to be without basis.

Preparing for the Polls

One thing that trans people who have changed their legal name can do to avoid bad experiences at the polls is to make sure that the name on their voter registration matches their legal name. However, this process isn’t as straightforward as it may seem.

When I eventually did change my name on my voter registration card in the wake of the 2016 elections, I needed to bring my updated driver’s license and my official name change form. The combined cost of the two here in Maine was about $250. With poverty still a real issue within the trans community, there are large swaths of trans people who cannot afford a legal name change. Getting updated identity documents is simply not financially feasible for every trans person.

Those costs can be especially prohibitive in states that have multiple restrictions on changing gender markers on IDs. In Tennessee, Idaho, Ohio, and Kansas, gender changes on birth certificates aren’t allowed at all, making obtaining accurate identification documents in those states for trans people who have medically transitioned a near-impossible pursuit. In 20 states, trans people must have gender reassignment surgery before being allowed to change their gender marker on their birth certificate. Despite an increase in insurance coverage for such procedures, not all trans people want the surgery, and even if they did, costs would run into the multiple thousands of dollars anyway.

The end result of requiring surgery to change gender markers on identity documents is that the many trans people who do not opt for surgery will have an ID that doesn’t match their outward appearance. These trans people end up with IDs that automatically out them as trans, so election officials or observers could potentially single them out for a hassle in states that require ID to vote.

Evans noted that the most worrisome risk for many trans people without updated documentation is having their vote challenged by local election observers. “You could potentially see a trans person with out-of-date information have their ballot contested under the guise that they’re not who they claim,” she said. For anyone, getting singled out as a potential perpetrator of fraud would constitute a traumatic experience, but even more so for transgender people, who are so often accused of outright deception simply for living their lives.

When a vote is challenged, “not only would a trans person be singled out and pulled aside to instead fill out [a provisional] ballot, but they’re now required to prove their identity and list their legal name,” said Evans. “The simple act of voting has now evolved into a trans person having to own their former legal identity, something that is often a source of dysphoria that many of us simply wish to distance ourselves from.”

Poll workers who might not be familiar with the obstacles to voting faced by the trans community may not recognize when trans people are being singled out for abuse by election observers who are trying to discourage them from casting ballots.

A simpler way to obtain an accurate legal ID, is for trans people to obtain a U.S. passport. Changing one’s gender on a passport only requires a doctor’s note certifying medical intervention in an effort to change sex. Trans people can even change their gender on their passport before changing their legal name, meaning that they don’t have to wait for an expensive hearing first.

This is an especially critical point to understand because that gender change process only exists thanks to U.S. Department of State policy. And while no potential changes have thus far been announced by the State Department, that could easily change. All it would take to roll back gender change policy on passports would be the appointment of a Family Research Council-backed secretary of state, should Rex Tillerson eventually resign, especially with the administration’s consistent attacks on the trans community.

Additionally, the National Center for Transgender Equality has released a “Voting While Trans” checklist with a helpful step-by-step guide to ensuring trans voters can make their voices heard. Included in the list is making sure that your name and address on your photo ID matches the name and address on your voter registration card. They also note that your gender presentation is never required by law to match the legal sex on your photo ID.

No one should be shamed or humiliated away from the voting booth, but unfortunately, it’s way too common of an experience for trans people. If we’re truly a nation of laws, then the right to vote is sacrosanct. Everyone should have a say in who represents us in government, but right now, that right does not fully extend to the trans community.

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