Barriers To Democracy: The Complications of #VotingWhileTrans

“I know the LGBT have barriers with voting, especially when they don’t have corrected ID cards to get a ballot. The advice I have for poll workers is to be open and not judge us. And don’t be biased.”

Voters who are undergoing the complicated process of a legal name change during election season may be ready to cast their ballot but lack voter ID documents as they jump through each of the hoops the name change process requires. A legal name change can be like a Rube Goldberg machine; each of the steps has to happen in a precise order, and as an onlooker, it’s difficult to figure out what the machine entails. You might have to learn as you go. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality flags “identification records” as one of the key issues facing transgender people today. Employment, schooling, and banking all require matching identification documents, and the barriers around moving through a name change process quickly and seamlessly can create vulnerabilities and cut trans and other LGBTQ+ people out of civic participation opportunities like voting. 

In the United States, voter ID laws are a relatively new phenomenon, and state guidelines continue to evolve. South Carolina was the first state to institute a voting identification requirement in 1950. Since then, 35 other states have followed suit. However, the range of acceptable types of ID, and possible alternatives such as a signed affidavit if an ID cannot be produced, differ from state to state, creating a complex patchwork of legal guidelines that some voters and even poll workers may find difficult to navigate. 

Ian, a college student in Cleveland, says he’s feeling “positive, anxious, and generally excited” about casting his ballot for the first time this fall in a general election. Like many voters across the country, Ian toggled between wanting to vote by mail-in ballot or in person. He eventually decided to vote in-person, but because Ian is a trans voter who is currently in the process of undergoing a legal name change, he’s faced additional complications related to his voter registration. 

Ian’s legal name change was approved by a judge in September, but he hasn’t been able to complete the next step of the process: arranging for a new card from the Social Security Office, which has experienced delays due to COVID.

“Being in college, I had to get a bunch of things coordinated and wasn’t able to. I tried to clear it with [Social Security], but it was up in the air whether it would be done in time,” Ian says. The solution came after Ian contacted elections officials in Cleveland who assured him that he will be able to vote using his existing social security number (Ohio is one of the states that accepts non-photo ID; these rules differ in each state). It does mean, however, that Ian will have to hold off on completing his name change until after the election, extending the timeline. 

Sulan Mlynarek, a voter from Tacoma, Washington, had a similar experience. “I changed my name at the district level and then didn’t make it to the federal level before Covid started. I voted with my deadname because of that, although I’m in Washington State and it’s all mail-in ballots here, so the impact wasn’t public, necessarily.”

Voting remotely can reduce the chance of being vocally misgendered and dead-named by poll workers. Even when documentation is complete, however, a voting experience devoid of transphobia is not guaranteed. In 2018, reported on the story of a woman in Vermont who was turned away while trying to vote because the poll worker did not believe the gender marker on her ID.

To address various scenarios that occur for trans voters, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has produced a #VotingWhileTrans guide, a flowchart of how to prepare to vote and what to do if you are turned away. The NCTE recommends that voters who cast their ballots in-person bring along their voting registration card, a utility bill with their current address, and a print-out of the NCTE’s #VotingWhileTrans one-pager. The document contains information for poll workers about the rights of trans voters. 

Jay Milliken, a voter from Oak Creek, Wisconsin says, “Voting was easier after I got my name changed. I had an updated picture that looked like the real me and [had] the gender marker correctly on there. I think the transgender community has more barriers, especially when they aren’t passing yet or don’t have an ID card that matches their real self. The poll workers might deny them to vote thinking that they aren’t the person on the card.”

Jay continues, “I know the LGBT have barriers with voting, especially when they don’t have corrected ID cards to get a ballot. The advice I have for poll workers is to be open and not judge us. And don’t be biased.”

The NCTE lists four guidelines for poll workers to keep in mind when interacting with transgender voters, a kind of “Trans 101” for the election cycle:

— The fact that someone hasn’t updated their ID to reflect their gender is not a valid reason to deny someone the right to vote. 

— If a poll worker can verify that the person on the ID is indeed the voter, regardless of “different clothing, makeup, or hairstyle,” then the ID is valid.

— It is not appropriate for poll workers to ask voters personal questions about their trans identity or medical details.

— It is a poll worker’s responsibility to make certain that transgender persons are able to exercise their right to vote: “Transgender voters are not doing anything wrong or trying to deceive you; they are just being themselves.” 

Completing a name change involves more than just a single court date or visit to the DMV. It’s a complex web of bureaucracies that are not necessarily aligned with one another, no matter what state you live in. 

Ian, the college student from Ohio, has advice for other voters undergoing a legal name change: If possible, try and avoid completing the process during the election cycle. He says he had to set up his name change now for school documents, but it would have been easier to do it a year ago. Ian says, “Spend the time making phone calls earlier than you think you have to. There’s information out there if you try hard enough.” Though, he also notes that the information is not readily available. 

Ian says that LGBTQ+ communities face barriers to voting. “When it feels like your voice isn’t being heard, it can feel like voting doesn’t matter. … You have to vote for someone who doesn’t represent you, just someone who is just representing you best. That’s why a lot of young people are not inclined to vote. I was raised in a very political family and I understand it personally, but I can understand why a lot of people are not inclined to vote, especially if you’re trans and you don’t know what’s going on with your name change.” 

According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, nearly a million transgender people are eligible voters in the United States. Of these voters, approximately a third have a different name and/or gender than what their government identification reflects. The Williams Institute reports that voting barriers will especially affect trans people of color, people with disabilities, young people and students, and people with low incomes — groups who already face multiple voting barriers. 

Some states accept a passport as a form of voter ID, but because passports are valid for a decade, the passport holder’s photo may be outdated. Some voters may be in Ian’s and Sulan’s situations: in the middle of a name change which is not yet bureaucratically complete. Other voters may not be interested in or able to ever change their name or gender marker at all, but have a gender presentation that is not accepted or understood by poll workers. 

Ian says that when his name change is complete, it will make it easier for him to vote in future elections. “I will just be able to use my driver’s license and do the normal thing, the same thing my brother does.” 

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