How Transgender Voters Are Fighting to Make Their Votes Count

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Of the estimated 1.4 million adults who identify as transgender in the U.S., nearly a million are eligible to vote. But according to astudy published by UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute in February of this year, about 42% of those voters could face barriers to casting a ballot in November, because they lack photo IDs that match their gender or their correct name. 

The risk of disenfranchisement is highest in the 35 states that require voters to show some form of ID at the polls, ranging from utility bills to government-issued photo IDs in the strictest states. Voter ID laws haveproliferated since 2006, ostensibly to prevent cases of voter fraud (which isexceedingly rare). Critics of the strict requirements say they can end up disenfranchising low-income, Black, and Latino voters, as well as other vulnerable groups.  

Legally, poll workers cannot turn voters away for being transgender or non-binary, or for having an outdated photo on their license. But that doesn’t necessarily stop poorly trained or discriminatory poll workers from challenging the rights of transgender voters if the picture or gender identity indicated on their ID doesn’t match their perceived presentation. In one November 2019 incident, for example, a transgender woman in North Carolina reported that a poll worker demanded she produce a photo ID, although the state’s law was not yet in effect.

Having a poll worker ridicule or even just call attention to a trans person’s identity could lead to harmful altercations, transgender rights advocates fear. “Maybe there isn’t an understanding of how dangerous that is, and how that can really expose someone to harm,” said Kit Malone, a transgender advocate and educator at theAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. “In a long line like those we’re expecting this year, you don’t know who’s back there behind you, and you don’t know what attitudes they have.”

There’s a patchwork of state laws governing what steps trans people have to take to change their identification information. Under normal circumstances, it can cost hundreds of dollars; Covid-related restrictions have made navigating the process even harder. 

The Williams Institute study was conducted before Covid changed the voting landscape, however — a landscape that brings new challenges, but also a few advantages. With expanded access to mail-in, absentee, or early voting, trans voters may be able to avoid encounters with poll workers entirely. In 34 states, including ones with photo ID laws like Georgia and Wisconsin, the right to opt into absentee voting was extended to all voters; in nine other states plus D.C., all voters have been mailed absentee ballots directly. As of Oct. 26, nearly 60 million people have already cast their ballots, a quarter of them “new or infrequent” voters.

“If you vote by mail, you don’t have to worry about disrespect. You still have to worry about making sure your registration’s accurate, your address is correct, but you don’t have to worry about some poll worker challenging you on your identity,” said Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Since that’s going way up this year, that’s probably helping trans people. And I assume a lot of trans people are taking that option, as a way to just keep the BS at bay.”

The threat of being harassed or intimidated at the polls can deter people from exercising their right to vote, she said. When the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted a survey of more than 27,000 trans people in 2015, they found “disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination,” along with elevated rates of harassment and violence. Though the group did not ask specifically about voting rights, it found that of the people who reported needing medical attention in the previous year, 23% reported avoiding getting it because they were afraid of discrimination or disrespect at the doctor’s office. These same risk calculations could keep trans voters away from the ballot box, especially in a year when President Donald Trump has encouraged his supporters to watch polls, and when the threat of intimidation by armed militias has manycities on edge.

“The voter suppression techniques that the current Republican leadership is using and the President himself, they’re not about challenging people at the polling places: they’re about getting people to not go in the first place,” said Keisling. “That impacts trans people probably more than other people.”

This year, at least 33 transgender and gender non-conforming peoplehave been murdered in the U.S., according to the Human Rights Campaign, breaking a record for violence. Black and Latinx women have been disproportionately targeted. 

“What Black trans people face at the polls is actually what black trans people face before they even get to the polls,” says Elle Hearns, the executive director of theMarsha P. Johnson Institute, which advocates for Black transgender people’s human rights. “Issues around obtaining ID, and obtaining IDs that affirm one’s gender or one’s chosen name — those are some of the barriers that exist across the country even before there’s an election.” Where you see the attempted suppression of voters of color, like inGeorgia andOhio, you’ll also see the suppression of trans voters of color, says Hearns.

Threats of intimidation, harassment, or ID challenges aside, trans voters face many of the same interlocking set of barriers to voting that cisgender people do, said Jody Herman, a scholar of public policy and the co-author of the Williams Institute study. Trans people are more likely to be housing insecure, and one in five have beenhomeless at some point, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality; this could leave them vulnerable to being purged from voter rolls. They’re also more likely to be incarcerated or have been formerly incarcerated. 

“Poverty levels are high in transgender people, homelessness and joblessness are high and exacerbated by the current economic conditions,” said Malone from the ACLU of Indiana. “That results in people being less able to do things like take a morning off from work and stand in a very long line.” While Republican-leaning states like Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee tend to have stricter ID laws than Democratic-leaning ones like California, Keisling says that the risks of experiencing discrimination vary by individual polling sites, since poll workers can be “notoriously idiosyncratic.” 

Texas, for example, is home to an estimated 78,600 voting-eligible trans people, 60% of whom do not have ID with their correct name or gender marker listed, according to the Williams Institute study. There, poll workers in Austin may be more understanding than those in a smaller, less progressive, rural town. In California, the state with the largest voting-eligible trans population and no state-level voting-ID laws, the Williams Institute estimates that 31% of trans voters do not have accurate IDs. There’s still a chance that a poll worker will refuse a voter whose traditionally masculine name does not match their appearance, Herman said. In Burlington, Vermont — a state with a small population of transgender voters, but with no voter ID laws — a woman who attempted to vote in the 2018 election was turned away after a poll workerchallenged their listed gender.

Training poll workers can limit this variability. The Secretary of State’s office in California, home to the largest voting-eligible trans population, has instituted apoll worker training program that includes guidance on protecting transgender voters. Indiana’s ACLU has distributed a tip sheet for poll workers to all the city clerk’s offices in the state.  

Transgender voters themselves — like all voters — can also prepare to vote by ensuring that they’re properly registered with the right name at the right address. As long as those two pieces of information are correct, there’s no legal basis for poll workers to turn anyone away based on their gender presentation or identity. 

If a poll worker challenges an ID, advocates recommend calling the National Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) for help. Voters can also cast a provisional ballot, which other election officials will verify; in some of the strictest states, voters must return to an election office and present a valid ID to an election official for the provisional vote to be counted. And if cost is a barrier to legally updating government information,Trans Lifeline, a non-profit that started as a peer counseling network for transgender people, has started offering grants to help trans people get new IDs that reflect their name or gender changes.

That’s partly why advocates often recommend early voting this year: “if there is a challenge or a snafu that you can’t get through immediately, you still have time to fix it,” said Keisling.

For those that aren’t able to or choose not to vote early or by mail, Covid-19 could prove limiting to transgender voters, in particular, many of whom are uninsured. Indiana, which has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the U.S., is also one of five states where fear of getting infected with coronavirus is not considered a valid excuse for requesting an absentee ballot.

As part of the ACLU of Indiana’s “Transforming the Polls” Campaign, the organization encourages transgender voters to show up to the polls in a group —  there’s strength and safety in numbers, says Malone. While restrictions on gathering this year means that the campaign isn’t able to hold its typical collective early-voting trip, she trusts that trans voters are already voting in numbers. 

“We don’t even have to look nationally to see that we’ve had yearly attacks filed in our legislature on the rights of transgender people,” she said. “It’s really important that trans people’s voices be heard in this election.” The Trump administration has attempted to roll back rules against denying trans people healthcare, as well as moved to strip protections for trans people inhomeless shelters.

The Marsha P. Johnson Institute haspartnered with HeadCount to help Black trans voters navigate the election season. But casting a ballot isn’t the only way to effect change, stressed Hearns; theorganization’s namesake was a transgender activist who believed in the power of grassroots organizing.

“We wanted to make sure that while we are certainly encouraging and supporting those who choose to vote, we also are supporting those who abstain from it,” said Hearns. “This is one election, this is not eternity. And so we’re really thinking about, what do we need post this election that will have us living in a world that will continue to support those who will be here long after we’re gone?”

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