It's never been easy for transgender people to vote, or participate in any activity that requires government-issued identification that might not match up with the appearance of the person handing it over. Now, as a growing number of states have introduced more rigid voter ID laws, advocates around the country are concerned that transgender people will have trouble exercising their right to vote this November.
Since 2003, states have been passing laws that require registered voters show some form of ID before they're allowed to vote. Last year alone, 34 states introduced legislation requiring voters show a photo ID at the polls. Proponents argue these laws are needed to combat voter fraud, while critics say the laws disproportionately effect minority and low-income groups, who may have more difficulty obtaining a government-issued photo ID.
But a report last spring from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, shed light on a little discussed side-effect of strict voter ID laws. According to the report, recent voting laws could also create problems, or prevent voting altogether, for more than 25,000 transgender people.
The report, published in April, is slightly out of date, as proposed voter ID laws in several states have already been overturned or delayed until after the 2012 election. However, the number of potentially disenfranchised transgender voters in the remaining states with strict laws could still be substantial.
The root of the concern over transgender voters this fall is that it's very difficult for transgender people to have correct ID, explained Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. According to the Williams Institute report, in the states that were either considering strict voter ID laws, or already have them in place, 40 percent of transgender people do not have an updated drivers license, and 29 percent had no identification or documents at all that list their correct gender. Keisling's organization, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, recently launched a campaign to educate transgender people about the barriers they may face this year at the polls, and to encourage all transgender people to vote in the election, despite these potential barriers.
Some states have more difficult barriers than others, not only when it comes to voting, but simply in acquiring a new ID after transitioning. In Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas and Indiana, photo IDs are required at the polls, and these states also require sex reassignment surgery in order for transgender people to get identifications with their correct gender and name.
"To think that someone would have to have surgery in order to get the ID they'd need in order to vote, that would seem ridiculous to any American," said Jody L. Herman, the manager of transgender research at the Williams Institute and the author of the recent report.
But even transgender people who do have the correct identifications can run into problems at their their polling places, Keisling and Herman both noted. "Somebody like me comes in to the voting place, and the poll worker may give me heightened scrutiny which could cause me to get turned away," Keisling said. "Any time an activity involves people judging, trans people are likely to have problems."
In 2010, Claire Swinford, a transgender woman then living in Arizona, was held up at the polls after she presented her driver's license, which still showed her male identity and male name. "I guess I should have expected it," Swinford said. "Naive as I was, I did not."
This year, Swinford has legally changed her name and updated her drivers license, but she still plans on voting absentee this year. She still feels frustrated by her experience two years ago, she said, and is now focusing on helping other transgender people get through the process. "It's certainly not the only place in the world where we experience difficulties based on our identity, but I guess in my mind the stakes are a little bit higher here."