clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

States are making it a lot harder for transgender people to vote

Strict voter ID laws don’t target trans people. But they can hurt trans people the most.

The LGBTQ flag, with the transgender flag in the background. Samuel Kubani/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past few years, more and more states have passed strict voter ID laws. Much of the attention around these laws has gone to how they tend to target people of color and make it much harder for them to vote. And the evidence certainly suggests these laws do target, sometimes intentionally so, and harm voters of color.

But there’s another marginalized segment of the population that can be greatly hurt by strict voter ID laws: transgender people.

“Trans people are not specifically targeted by any voter ID laws,” Arli Christian, state policy counsel for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), told me. “However, voter ID laws have a disproportionate effect on transgender communities.”

Once you think about it, these hurdles are pretty obvious. For example, a trans person’s legal name, photo, or gender marker just may not be updated on a legal ID, because state law makes it difficult or impossible to alter that kind of information. So when trans people show up at the polling booth, they may have their identities questioned and denied because their physical appearance doesn’t match what their ID says. And that could hinder trans people’s ability to vote, or stop them from voting altogether.

Strict voter ID laws make it especially harder for trans people to vote

This situation is enabled by state laws that are very strict in what kind of ID is required to vote — Texas, for example, allows a driver’s license or other government-issued ID, but not a student ID or bank statement. States can also make it difficult to update the name, photo, or gender marker on government-issued IDs.

According to NCTE, five states have strict voter ID laws and make it very difficult or even impossible for trans people to change the gender markers on their IDs: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. (For a breakdown of each state’s law, check out NCTE’s in-depth database.)

“Transgender voters in those states are left with few options,” Christian said. “They may try to meet the burdensome requirements for updating the gender marker on their ID if they are able. They may brave it and head to the polls with an ID that does not match who they are, opening themselves up to potential harassment and unnecessary scrutiny and suspicion from poll workers. Or they may decide not to vote at all.”

The five states are the worst offenders, but other states have a variety of hurdles that can make it difficult to vote. In general, updating ID documents is “a fairly complicated process,” Christian explained. Whether it’s changing a legal name, getting a new photo, or altering other information, many people simply don’t have the time or resources — particularly transportation — that may be required to get to, say, a court or DMV.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is many states’ requirements for changing a gender marker. States can require, for instance, proof of surgery or a doctor’s signature to get a gender marker changed on birth certificates or government-issued IDs. Some, like Tennessee, don’t let you change certain documents at all.

The result is that trans people often face problems — not just in polling booths, but broadly — due to outdated IDs. According to the 2011 National Trans Discrimination Survey, 40 percent of trans people reported harassment or discrimination when presenting an ID that doesn’t match who they are. And only one-fifth of those who transitioned were able to change all of their documentation and records.

It doesn’t have to be this way, especially to exercise a citizen’s most basic right.

Transitioning is an individual, private process. States’ ID laws breach that privacy.

Frederic Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The main problem with laws around IDs and gender transitioning is they assume that transitioning is a uniform process for all trans people. They are essentially relics of the 1970s, when surgery in particular was deemed the one standard for proving someone’s gender identity — even though not all trans people want or can get the surgeries that states deem necessary, even if they alter other aspects of their physical appearance to match their gender identity.

“Gender transition is an individually unique process,” Christian said. “Transitioning may include things like changing a legal name or just changing a name used in social settings, changing gender pronouns, changing someone’s dress and gender expression; [it] may include hormone therapy, may include surgery or other medical intervention, may include working with a therapist to explore gender identity. These are all different aspects of gender transition that an individual may go through. And there’s no one right, prescribed way to transition.”

The 2011 National Trans Discrimination Survey bears this out: It found that about 61 percent of trans and gender nonconforming respondents reported having medically transitioned, and 33 percent said they had surgically transitioned. And about 14 percent of trans women and 72 percent of trans men said they don't ever want full genital construction surgery. That’s a lot of trans people, particularly trans men, who would not meet requirements for changing their IDs in some states.

There are many reasons why this is the case. Some trans people may not be able to afford all the surgeries required. Some may have medical conditions that inhibit some or all of these surgeries. And some may simply not want to get the procedures done — they may consider the surgeries too invasive, or they may think the surgeries shouldn’t be and aren’t necessary to identify and express as a certain gender.

So some trans people may look like and present as the gender they identify as but not get some of the surgeries required to change a state ID. And that could lead to problems at the polls.

There’s another side to this: privacy concerns. Some trans people may not want to tell everyone that they are trans — perhaps out of fear of discrimination or stigmatization, including from government officials.

Yet states’ ID requirements can effectively force trans people to disclose their medical information and transition history to vote. “Medical information is private, is between an individual and their doctor, and should not be requested by the state in order to get an ID that reflects who you are,” Christian said.

States can ease ID hurdles that trans people face and potentially save time and money

A police car. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

To make it easier for trans people to vote, states could repeal strict voter ID laws in the first place. But short of that, states could make it easier to change information on an ID.

NCTE, for one, recommends that states to allow a simple one-page form that lets someone indicate the relevant information for an ID, including gender markers. And, Christian said, states should stop requiring that a health care provider sign off on these kinds of forms.

Reforms in this area could simplify or eliminate a process that currently requires several parts of government — courts and police in particular — to spend time and resources policing someone’s gender by imposing hurdles to legally transitioning. And it makes voting more difficult, but it can also unnecessarily complicate anything from a trip to the bathroom to a routine traffic stop to renewing a driver’s license.

“When we don’t allow people to update their ID to reflect who they are, we are doing a disservice to law enforcement, to poll officials, to society,” Christian argued, “because we’re making it more complicated and confusing.”

For now, trans people can access some resources to try to have an easier time voting at NCTE’s website. And if trans voters run into problems, NCTE recommends trying to find help first at a local polling place (where volunteers may help), calling the national Election Protection hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE) for aid, and, as a last resort, obtaining a provisional ballot to vote.

But maybe voting just shouldn’t be this hard for anyone in the first place.

Watch: How most states still allow discrimination against LGBTQ people