How Voter ID Could Be Suppressing the Trans Vote
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The number of trans voters affected has more than doubled since the last presidential election.
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Melina Barratt knew to come prepared. It was election season in Florida, in 2016, and the newly transitioned 41-year-old woman was ready to do her civic duty. So she walked into the polling place, pre-transition driver’s license in hand. As expected, she was asked for ID. Upon handing it over, Barratt received an unexpected compliment that made her feel seen: “That’s not you.”
“Which personally felt kind of good,” Barratt says. “They’re looking at a picture that is clearly a boy and that’s not me and she’s right. I mean, it is but it isn’t — it’s past me.” Barratt is one of the fortunate ones. As a college student, she had a campus ID with her old name, but it also featured an up-to-date photo, a step she took to bridge the ID gap while she pursued an official name change. But not all transgender voters are so prepared — and it’s a problem that’s about to affect a lot more people.
The number of transgender voters who could face disenfranchisement in strict voter ID states has increased 138 percent since 2016.
That’s according to research by the Williams Institute, which estimated that in 2016, 34,000 trans people in states with strict photo-based voter ID laws didn’t have ID that accurately reflected their gender. In 2020, that number will be 81,000. Across the United States, voter ID laws could affect more than 378,000 eligible transgender voters.
Voter ID laws have been a wedge issue for a few decades now, with conservative lawmakers in particular pushing laws that they claim will stop in-person voter fraud. Opponents of such measures say the laws are a bid to disenfranchise people, that in-person voter fraud is increasingly rare and that ID requirements disproportionately affect minorities, many of whom, studies have found, are less likely to have a photo ID.
Such rules pose a particular barrier for transgender voters, who may have IDs but are unable to use them because they no longer reflect their owners’ presentation. Laws about changing your gender on a driver’s license vary widely by state — in some, the change requires certification by a doctor, a court order or proof of sex reassignment surgery. More than 378,000 voting-eligible transgender people may face barriers to voting due to voter registration requirements and voter ID laws.
And those states with strict voter ID laws aren’t making it easy for trans people to get updated IDs, says Jody L. Herman, a policy fellow at the Williams Institute who has co-authored studies on the topic since 2012. “The strictest voter ID states seem to have the most work to do on those fronts,” she says.
Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia have some of the highest barriers for transgender people not only to obtain new IDs but also to live as transgender. And there’s a barrage of new legislation pending across the country that seeks to keep trans kids from participating in sports or receiving medical care that acknowledges their identities. Intersectional factors play a role as well: Trans people are more likely to experience homelessness, which presents its own barriers to voting. Even as political debates directly involve their rights, state regulations can make it particularly difficult for trans people to vote.
Barratt, legislative director of the Florida National Organization for Women and the first openly transgender woman to run for the Florida Senate, was fortunate to have a student ID and knowledge of Florida’s voting statutes. But other trans voters might not have the knowledge, support and luck that Barratt did when she was able to cast her vote in 2016.
“There are ways of doing it if you think about it and are prepared,” she says. For those concerned, Barratt advises them to contact their local political party chapter and find out who is in charge of voter protection. Of the 35 voter ID states, 18 require voters to show a government-approved photo ID when voting at the polls.
One development that could make the system easier for many voters, not only transgender ones: voting by mail. Five states are expected to conduct elections entirely by mail in 2020 — Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, Utah and Washington. While all states allow absentee voting by mail, a third of them still require that voters have a valid reason to do so (e.g., advanced age, a disability or a medical emergency). Some studies have shown that voting by mail increases turnout.
Because voting by mail means the typical hurdles won’t exist — i.e., potential challenges by poll workers — transgender voters should face fewer barriers. And the issue may actually get a boost from an unexpected emergency: the coronavirus, which has many pushing for expanding voting by mail ahead of November’s general election. In-person voting may be restricted by quarantines or fears about transmission of the virus, but the preparations could wind up inadvertently protecting the voting rights of those disadvantaged by strict voter ID laws.