Over 200,000 trans people could face voting restrictions because of state ID laws

Transgender people often have to vote with IDs that don’t represent who they are or not vote at all while they navigate the complicated process to update their IDs.

NBC News

On Election Day in 2016, Henry Seaton, a transgender man who was then 18, showed up to his local polling place in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, to vote for the first time.

Seaton showed his state ID. But the poll worker gave him a confused look and called over another poll worker to look at Seaton’s identification.

Then, in front of the Nazarene church where he was supposed to vote, the poll workers asked him about what they saw as a discrepancy between his ID and his appearance.

“I had to out myself as transgender,” said Seaton, now 24. He had legally changed his name at the time, but the gender marker on his Tennessee ID still said “female.”

Henry Seaton, a trans justice advocate at the ACLU of Tennessee, in Nashville.Courtesy Henry Seaton.

That outing, he said, “can be brutally dangerous, especially where I was living, which is a conservative suburb.” 

“It’s not just embarrassing, but it’s terrifying to have to do that — to try to read the room and see, like, are they going to kick me out? It can be really dehumanizing to have your whole identity nitpicked just so that you can cast your ballot and have your voice be heard,” added Seaton, a transgender justice advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

With early voting for next week’s election underway in many states, Seaton is unlikely to be alone in his experience. While trans people may face barriers to voting in dozens of states, Tennessee is one of eight where they could face particularly challenging obstacles at the polls this month because of both strict voter ID laws and a simmering culture war, in which transgender people have been thrust to the forefront. This year alone, more than 160 state bills to restrict trans rights have been proposed across the country, according to the ACLU. 

“People who might be inclined to harass marginalized voters at the polls are more aware of trans people’s existence,” said Olivia Hunt, the policy director at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “So I expect that we’re going to hear more stories of trans people being harassed, whether by voters, poll workers, poll monitors or other folks who are present during the election.”

Impact of voter ID laws on trans voters

Voter identification laws differ widely by state. The majority of them, 35 states, will require or request that voters show some kind of ID for the 2022 election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight of those states have strict photo ID laws. In Tennessee, for example, voters are required to show government-issued photo IDs, and student IDs aren’t acceptable. 

Since the 2020 election, 12 states have enacted new or stricter voter ID laws, according to VoteRiders, a nonpartisan voting rights organization.

In the 15 states without ID laws, voters’ identities are usually verified by checking them against their voter registration information, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Proponents of voter identification laws say they prevent fraud and protect election integrity, but critics say they disproportionately affect Black voters, students, the elderly, disabled people, those who are low-income and trans voters.

For example, 8% of white eligible voting-age citizens didn’t have valid government-issued photo IDs, compared with 25% of Black voting-age citizens and 16% of Hispanics, according to 2012 data from the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. 

Voter ID laws can also create problems for trans people in particular, who might change their names and gender presentations as part of their transitions, and updating their IDs would require them to also legally change their names and potentially their gender markers. 

There are an estimated 878,300 voting-eligible transgender adults in the U.S., according to a September report from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, and about 414,000 of them live in 31 states that conduct their elections primarily in person at the polls and also have laws that require or request that voters show some form of ID. Nearly half of the eligible trans voters in those 31 states, about 203,700 of them, don’t have IDs that reflect their gender identities and the names they go by, and 64,800 of them live in states with the strictest voter ID laws, where photo IDs are required with few or no alternatives available, according to the Williams Institute.

“We hear stories from voters after most elections that they were challenged at the polls because their driver’s license or other ID didn’t match their current appearance or that the name that was on it did not match in the poll worker’s mind the gender presentation that they had,” said Hunt, of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Obstacles to name and gender marker changes

Hunt said some states make it difficult and prohibitively expensive to legally change one’s name and gender marker. In nearly all states, residents have to submit petitions to local courts for name changes (in Hawaii, a resident would submit an application to the lieutenant governor).

Nine states also require residents to publish their name change announcements, often for three to four weeks, in local papers, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank. Eighteen additional states have what the organization calls “unclear publication requirements” or rules that allow courts to waive the requirements. The publication requirements allow creditors or anyone else to object to name changes. 

Alex Corona, director of programs at Diverse & Resilient in Milwaukee.Courtesy Alex Corona

Wisconsin has both a strict voter photo ID law and an unclear publication requirement that can sometimes be waived for residents who want to change their names. In Milwaukee, for example, residents have to file petitions for their name changes with local courts, then publish notice of their name changes in local papers for three consecutive weeks, said Alex Corona, the director of community programs at Diverse & Resilient, a local LGBTQ health advocacy group.

After Milwaukee residents publish their name changes, Corona said, they have to appear in front of judges again. Then, residents have to update their names with a variety of state agencies, including the Wisconsin Vital Records Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security office, among others.

Corona navigated the process herself in college. She said she found it so complex that she was inspired to help other trans people navigate the process. To date, she has helped more than 125 people change their names.

“It involves being able to speak on behalf of yourself in court, and a lot of people, trans or cis[gender], are afraid of the court system, because we’ve never been taught that’s supposed to be helping us,” she said. “It’s still very threatening, and it makes you feel like you’re doing something bad or you’re not supposed to be doing it. They ask you repeatedly if this is what you want to do, and it’s like, ‘Yes, I want to be myself.’”

Corona said the process can take at least three weeks and up to four months in Milwaukee County. Some other counties in Wisconsin, she added, may require residents to have their fingerprints taken at local police stations or go through criminal background checks.

“But if you want to, there are ways to get involved in the process,” she said. “You can jump through all of the hoops and the loops — most of them are on fire — but there are ways to still participate in the system and to force ourselves into a system that doesn’t want us and needs to represent us.”

'Suspicious looks' and fear of violence

When poll workers evaluated Seaton’s ID at his suburban polling place in 2016, he wasn’t afraid only of not being allowed to vote. 

“They did finally let me go in, but I did get some suspicious looks, because when you do that, everyone else can see that you were flagged, as well,” he said. “And in a state where voter fraud and ‘election integrity’ is so crucial to a lot of people, that can be really not just stigmatizing, but it can lead to a lot of suspicion.”

Advocates say trans voters in battleground states could be more likely to face such suspicion at the polls. 

Arizona, for example, requires voters to show IDs at the polls, but they don’t have to include photos. Seaton mentioned comments by state Sen. Kelly Townsend, a Republican, who in May spread unfounded allegations of mass voter fraud and said she was pleased with “all you vigilantes out there that want to camp out” at election drop boxes. Then, last week, during early voting in Arizona, some voters were recorded on video and followed by a car out of the parking lot. The Arizona secretary of state referred the report to the U.S. Justice Department. 

Trans people are more likely to face harassment if they haven’t updated their IDs to reflect their gender identities and chosen names. The Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that 25% of respondents reported being verbally harassed, 16% reported being denied services or benefits, 9% reported being asked to leave venues and 2% reported being assaulted or attacked after having presented IDs that didn’t align with their gender expressions. 

Fears about having an ID challenged, misinformation about voter fraud and the wave of anti-trans legislation and rhetoric over the last few years are all factors for trans voters, Seaton said, especially in a state like Tennessee, which enacted five laws last year that target transgender people. 

Last year, Tennessee became one of 18 states that bar transgender athletes from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identities, and it also enacted a law that a federal judge struck down in May that would have required businesses in the state to post warning notices on their public restrooms if they allowed trans patrons to use the facilities that matched their gender identities. 

Seaton noted that conservative podcast host Matt Walsh also held a rally at the State Capitol in Nashville on Oct. 21 to oppose gender-affirming care’s being provided at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. In September, Walsh claimed on Twitter that doctors at the hospital “mutilate” children through gender-affirming procedures. Vanderbilt Medical Center said in a statement that Walsh’s tweets “misrepresent facts” about the care it provides and that parental consent is required for all treatment of minors.

Jace Wilder, education manager at the Tennessee Equality Project in Nashville.Courtesy Jace Wilder

Jace Wilder, the education manager at the Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, said he has received emails about trans people “that are scared to even attempt to go vote because of how vicious it has become here.” 

He said some trans people want to use their right to vote, but not if “it’s going to actually put a target on you before you even get to walk in the door with whoever’s behind you making a judgment about you — maybe making comments potentially ending with more violence.”

Wilder said that when he voted in the 2020 election in Nashville, a poll worker stared at his ID for about five minutes in silence before Wilder felt compelled to out himself as trans and explain the discrepancies. He said he’s afraid that this year trans people are more likely to simply be turned away entirely, “because it’s become acceptable to consider trans people as fraudulent at this point.”

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