Illustration by Hunter French
2020 election

ID Laws and Stigma Are Keeping Some Trans Voters Away From the Polls

“When you want to go practice your right as an American citizen to cast a ballot, you have this person looking at you and you wonder, Are they going to challenge my ballot or say ‘You don’t look like this person?’”
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
August 3, 2020, 6:26pm

100 years ago, American women legally gained the right to vote. Yet today, many women and non-binary people in the U.S.—and around the world—still aren't counted at the polls. The 19th in 2020 is a short series about some of the obstacles they face.

When Madeleine Croll is working as an election judge somewhere around Hidalgo County, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, she makes sure to let people in her community know. Part of her oath of office as Democratic party precinct chair involved getting trained as an election judge—someone who monitors polling locations around the state, solving any disputes that may come up throughout an election day, like whether a certain ID is valid or not.


Texas’s voter identification law, one of the most expensively defended in the country, went into effect in 2013, and while it includes no mention of ID gender needing to match gender presentation, misguided (and sometimes malicious) poll workers are occasionally known to bloat the law’s jurisdiction. But not when Croll is working. As the first transgender Texan elected to a precinct chair position, she’s able to properly interpret what the law says, separate that from what some who defend it hopes it will do, and make sure everyone who can vote does.

Texas is one of 36 states that requires some form of ID to vote. Voter ID laws are an almost exclusively a Republican-led effort, a popular way to combat the red herring of rampant voter fraud, and, in practice, a highly effective way to disenfranchise trans and non-white voters. Several studies have found that such laws skew elections toward the right.

A study from the UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute, published in February 2020, found that “over 378,000 voting-eligible transgender people may face barriers to voting due to voter registration requirements and voter ID laws, including 81,000 who could face disenfranchisement in strict photo ID states.” Trans people of color, students, people with low incomes, and people with disabilities are “likely overrepresented” among those who may face voting barriers in the November election. Strict ID laws, which require photo identification, are used in eight states, mostly throughout the South. (Texas’s law isn’t among them.)


As of 2015, only 11 percent of trans people had documentation that matched their name and gender. According to the Williams Institute report, there’s no way of predicting how poll workers in strict ID law states will interpret a trans voter’s ID, or whether they’ll allow them to vote if their photo doesn’t match their appearance in person.

In Harris County, the mammoth Texas county in which Houston is located, nearly 15 percent of nonvoters told researchers in 2017 that the reason they didn’t go to the polls was out of concern that they lacked the proper ID. Researchers also found that most people who didn’t vote for this reason ultimately did have an acceptable form of identification. One of the Texas voter ID law’s strengths in suppressing votes is the room it leaves for individual interpretation. The list of acceptable forms of identification is clear, and brief; only seven are good at the polls, including a passport, Texas drivers’ license, and handgun license.

The law also mentions that, in situations where a voter’s name on their ID no longer matches the name on the list of registered voters, election officers are to determine whether the two are “substantially similar.” Thanks to the 19th Amendment, which prohibits denial of the right to vote along gender lines, nothing written in the Texas voter ID law mentions gender presentation specifically. But as Croll explained, confusion and fear of stigma at the polling place effectively block trans people from voting in every election.


Texas's voter ID law has changed several times over the past seven years, having been struck down by federal courts and then revised by the state legislature. Because of that, Croll said she believes some poll workers are simply confused when a trans voter walks into their location with an ID that doesn’t match the list of registered voters, or a gender presentation that doesn’t match their ID marker.

“I see the way the voter ID law in particular makes trans people nervous and impacts their ability to vote in the state all the time,” said Ash Hall, digital coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “When you have a law that’s intended to disenfranchise people, of course it’s going to affect the transgender community, because there are trans people in every kind of community.”

Hall emphasized the gray space in the law, which leaves far too much room for poll workers to interpret valid identification on the fly. “There’s nothing in the ID law about gender markers, but so many trans people are scared that, once their marker is changed on their drivers’ license, they’re going to have trouble at the poll,” Hall said. “And to an extent that’s actually true, because even though there’s nothing in the law about that, a lot of poll workers think that’s something they need to be wary of when a trans person walks in and presents that ID.”

Hall said trans people in Texas are disincentivized from going through the bureaucratic rigmarole necessary to update their ID, which itself introduces an entire maze of discriminatory policies. A court order is required to change gender markers on ID in the state, an expensive process that usually requires the help of a lawyer. The most recent available data from Texas’s Department of State Health Services suggests that less than 1 percent of trans Texans have successfully updated their birth certificates (the context for this data was the state’s proposed “bathroom bill,” which would have required Texans to use the restroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate).


“Getting legal IDs is sometimes a bit of an issue for us,” Croll said. “Imagine how weird it is that we live our lives as ourselves, and then when you want to go practice your right as an American citizen to cast a ballot, you have this person looking at you and you wonder, are they going to challenge my ballot or say ‘You don’t look like this person?’”

Once, when Croll was working as an election judge, a trans woman with a court-ordered name change that didn’t match her name on the registered voter list came to her polling location. “The clerk brought it to me and the question was, ‘Can she vote?’” Croll said. “I was able to say, ‘Yes, no problem,’ and then, ‘I’m sorry you have to vote under your dead name, but you can vote.’ The scary thing for me is: How many people might have that happen, or won’t even go vote because they’re afraid of facing that challenge?” Croll added that she can name at least a dozen people she knows who won't vote, over those exact fears.

After a federal appellate court ruled the original Texas voter ID law to have a discriminatory effect in 2016, the state amended the law by adding an option for people who lack an acceptable ID to submit an affidavit explaining why (a much more arduous process than voting). But any finding of a false statement in these affidavits can be met with criminal penalties, further scaring off people who are already unsure about the validity of their ID.


Ultimately, a person’s voting experience comes down to the poll workers at the voting location, and how well-versed they are in the voter ID law and the ways in which it’s designed to leave out trans voters. “There has to be a level of education that happens, especially [for poll workers] living somewhere that isn’t actively making strides to get to know the community,” Hall said. “I don’t think trans people are having as many issues in Austin as they are in Brenham or even Dallas, for that matter, because Austin is a city that has made quite the effort to be inclusive and account for trans people.” Though even the idea that Austin is a haven for trans people in Texas is a bit of a misconception; Texas routinely has the highest rates of violence against trans people in the country, and before the Supreme Court ruling in June 2020, Texas was among the states that didn’t explicitly offer protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ community.

“It’s a traumatic experience to stand there, and hear that poll workers are yelling across to somebody else that they can’t figure out how to proceed, and outing someone to the entire line,” said Emmett Schilling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, about the anxieties around voting as a trans person in Texas. “I think people don’t understand how dehumanizing it is.”

Something both Schilling and Hall focus on in their work around the state is educating trans voters on their rights at the polls, making sure people know which forms of ID are allowed, which aren’t, and what can be done in the event of voter suppression over a form of ID. Schilling’s organization is also focused on educating poll workers throughout the state, so voters can have a uniform experience, rather than chancing their ability to vote based on their polling place.

They also both bristle at the idea of moving somewhere else, to a more progressive state with less discriminatory laws. “Texas can be known for being intolerant and ignorant, but we have millions of people who are incredible and compassionate,” Hall said. “I want to make life better for all of these folks that have to put up with a lot of intolerance and ignorance. Texas also has so much sway, in terms of the way that the rest of the nation falls. So if we're able to make progress in this state, it bolsters the progressive movement across the country.”