Strict voter ID laws in states across the country have spiked fears of voter suppression; according to the ACLU, such requirements disproportionately—and unjustly—effect low-income communities and ethnic minorities. Unsurprisingly, the transgender population is also among those impacted by these policies: According to a new report from the Williams Institute, strict voter ID laws may disenfranchise as many as 34,000 transgender voters in the November presidential election. This number represents a portion of the transgender population who live in the eight states with the strictest voter ID laws, and the report states that "thirty percent of the voting-eligible transgender population" in these states "have no identification or records that accurately reflect their gender."
Sean Young, a senior attorney for the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, says that the United States has a long history of trying to suppress the voting ability of African American communities. "Ever since blacks were given the right to vote after the Civil War, African Americans have fought to exercise their political power. Governments have responded by making it harder for them to do so," Young explains. But, he adds, these laws may also "have a detrimental effect" on the transgender population.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are 34 states with voter ID laws in place. Eight of those states (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin) have laws that are considered "strict." These states require each voter to show government-issued photo identification to poll workers. As a result, they're the states that are most likely to suppress marginalized voting populations.
For poor or low-income people of color and trans people, the process of obtaining government ID can be extremely difficult. In addition to transportation and employment-related barriers, the process itself may be too convoluted for many people—and potentially prohibitive for those without internet access or those who have limited education, Young says.
"Forcing a lower-income person to navigate multiple layers of incredibly frustrating bureaucracy just to exercise the right to vote is offensive to our democracy," he affirms.
For trans people, the process of obtaining government-issued identification can be even more daunting. "If a transgender individual does not closely resemble the picture that is on the photo ID, it can be quite an onerous process to get a new ID," Young explains. "If there is [a] gender marker on the ID which does not reflect the transgender person's true gender, depending on the laws of the state, they may have to get their gender officially recognized by the government, which can be complicated."
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people living in Wisconsin, for example, are required to first obtain a court order for change of name, then go through the process of updating their information with the Social Security Administration, and then procure a doctor's letter and court order that call for both name and gender marker alteration. That's a lot of paperwork, and Young says that a court-ordered gender marker or name change may simply be too difficult for some trans people to get—or they may be denied. Some states, like Alabama, require that transgender individuals undergo major surgery on their genitals before becoming eligible for an updated gender marker, which is disturbing.
That's just not a barrier that folks should have to deal with when they are exercising their fundamental right to vote.
Many trans people don't want to have their genitalia surgically reassembled. Even if they do, they're likely unable to afford it. But more importantly, does the state have the authority to force American citizens to undergo major surgery in order to participate in public life? The American Medical Association doesn't think so. In 2014, the AMA called for the removal of transgender surgical requirements on ID alteration, stating that "state laws must acknowledge that the correct course of treatment for any given individual is a decision that rests with the patient and the treating physicians."
If a transgender person does have some form of ID and decides to vote, there's still the possibility that they might experience discrimination from poll workers. Young says that "there [is] no clear guidance" on whom poll workers should or should not "allow to vote." This is "especially troubling" for trans voters, he says. Trans people with identification that depicts an inaccurate gender "may be deterred from going to vote at all because they don't want to subject themselves to the harassment and prejudice of poll workers, who do not understand why a photo may not entirely resemble the person that is before them."
"When you're already facing tremendous amounts of societal transphobia—that's just not a barrier that folks should have to deal with when they are exercising their fundamental right to vote," Young says.
The politicians who back these laws claim that they're designed to protect against voter fraud, but many critics feel that this is a disingenuous concern based on an imaginary problem. The Brennan Center for Justice of New York University is one of the most vocal critics of voter ID laws. They have been analyzing the "myth" of voter fraud for years. "Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent, and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators," the Center explains.
Experts like Young believe that there are alternative motives behind ID laws."Politicians have been making up and spreading false rumors about voter fraud for the express purposes of passing these laws to make it harder for certain groups to exercise political power," Young says. The problem may seem largely procedural, as barriers to voting appear to come from a tangle of local policy and legislation. But the effect on marginalized populations may be a violation of their constitutional rights.
"Voting is commonly described as the right that preserves all other rights," Young said, adding that American citizens who suffer from injustice are entitled to participate in their country's democratic process in order elect officials who will represent their interests and obtain legislative protections for them. "If you take the right to vote away, you take that precious tool away," Young says. "If you are a marginalized person, almost all of your interactions with the government are negative. The one interaction that should be pure, that should not be tainted by any kind of discrimination, is voting."
"When you taint that process and tell someone that is marginalized—who's trans, who's homeless, who's lower income—that when you exercise this most basic, fundamental right, we're going to go out of our way to make it harder for you, that's taking away their basic dignity as a United States citizen," Young states.