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How Voter ID Laws Threaten Transgender Voters

American democracy is better when all citizens, regardless of gender identity or expression, are able to participate.

November 20, 2020

Today is the annual Trans­gender Day of Remem­brance. On this day, we mourn the voices in the trans­gender community that have been lost to sense­less acts of hate and viol­ence. Yet we must also recog­nize that viol­ence is not the only way that trans­gender voices are silenced. Voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion laws in states across the coun­try often pose an insur­mount­able obstacle to trans­gender voters cast­ing a ballot.

Currently, 35 states require an ID to vote, and 18 of those states require a photo ID. Over the past 15 years, a number of states have adop­ted strict voter ID laws that do not offer an altern­at­ive option for voters who cannot obtain an ID. These voter ID laws present unique and signi­fic­ant chal­lenges to trans­gender and nonbin­ary voters.

Many trans­gender and nonbin­ary voters do not have a form of iden­ti­fic­a­tion that matches their gender iden­tity. The Willi­ams Insti­tute, an LGBTQ research hub at the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia Los Angeles, has estim­ated that 260,000 trans­gender people who live in the 35 states with voter ID laws did not have a form of ID that accur­ately reflec­ted their name and/or gender iden­tity to use in the 2020 general elec­tion. This number repres­ents more than one quarter of the trans­gender adult popu­la­tion eligible to vote in the 2020 general elec­tion.

In just the past few years, numer­ous trans­gender voters have been harassed or chal­lenged at the polls because their gender expres­sion or name differs from the ID presen­ted to poll work­ers. This kind of harass­ment has a chilling effect on all trans­gender and nonbin­ary voters and increases the fear of being targeted, outed, or chal­lenged at the polls, which serves to further suppress the power of their communit­ies.

Updat­ing iden­ti­fic­a­tion docu­ments to reflect the correct name and gender marker can be daunt­ing. This process can be costly, time-consum­ing, and confus­ing, with laws vary­ing signi­fic­antly from state to state. Some states go as far as to require proof of gender-affirm­ing surgical care or a court order to update a gender marker. Addi­tion­ally, a major­ity of states do not have nonbin­ary gender marker options, creat­ing prob­lems for voters who do not identify as male or female.

The partic­u­lar chal­lenges faced by trans­gender and nonbin­ary voters amplify the general burdens asso­ci­ated with obtain­ing voter ID. As Bren­nan Center research has previ­ously docu­mented, signi­fic­ant finan­cial barri­ers prevent poten­tially millions of other­wise eligible voters from obtain­ing voter IDs in the states with the most strict and oner­ous voter ID policies. And it’s no surprise that these policies hit low-income communit­ies and communit­ies of color the hard­est. Addi­tion­ally, a dispro­por­tion­ate number of trans­gender Amer­ic­ans are people of color or live in poverty. Beyond obtain­ing voter ID, trans­gender and nonbin­ary Amer­ic­ans are also overrep­res­en­ted among home­less Amer­ic­ans, who face chal­lenges estab­lish­ing resid­ency to register to vote in the first place.

States are start­ing to take notice of these issues and act on them.

Some states have taken major steps to elim­in­ate the barri­ers to obtain­ing accur­ate voter IDs for their trans­gender and nonbin­ary citizens. Some states like Oregon and Minnesotafor example, provide their resid­ents with the oppor­tun­ity to choose the gender desig­na­tion on their ID from addi­tional options such as “not specified” or “other.” States like Maine go even further and make it free for nonbin­ary indi­vidu­als to change the gender desig­na­tion on their IDs. These states’ efforts may go a long way in normal­iz­ing the pres­ence of persons that do not identify with either male or female genders and redu­cing discrim­in­a­tion against trans­gender and nonbin­ary Amer­ic­ans.

Beyond that, states should reform overly restrict­ive voter ID laws. Proponents of ID laws have claimed that they are needed to prevent voter fraud — but the Bren­nan Center and others have repeatedly debunked the myth of rampant voter fraud. At the federal level, Congress should also pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would help to prevent states from imple­ment­ing discrim­in­at­ory voter suppres­sion laws in the first place.

Our demo­cracy is better when all citizens, regard­less of gender iden­tity or expres­sion, are able to parti­cip­ate in it. Trans­gender and nonbin­ary Amer­ic­ans deserve to have their voices heard without undue burdens, costs, and barri­ers. On this Trans­gender Day of Remem­brance, let’s help end the silen­cing of our fellow Amer­ic­ans and fight for reform so that we are all able to exer­cise our right to vote.