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As Midterms Loom, Voter ID Laws Pose Potential Barriers for Trans Americans

Hurdles to obtaining gender-affirming identification mean the voices of transgender voters may not be heard.

With the midterm elections approaching, analysts and advocates are warning that stringent voter identification requirements may uniquely impact a particular marginalized group: transgender people.

More than 200,000 transgender Americans could face obstacles trying to vote in the midterm elections due to voter ID laws, according to a recent report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Researchers estimate there are 878,300 eligible transgender voters in the United States, and say that of the more than 400,000 who live in the 31 states where elections are conducted primarily in-person and have a voter ID law, nearly 50% lack identification meeting state requirements and accurately reflecting their name or gender identity.

Experts say there are a variety of obstacles transgender people may face in getting accurate identification. Two major ones can be stringent requirements in place for changing gender markers and the financial costs associated with changing names. In New Orleans, for instance, fees for a legal name change total $250 – down from $506 after activists mounted a campaign to curb the cost.

For many transgender people, dealing with a lack of affirming documents is a regular struggle that threatens to be further amplified through scrutiny of their identification at the polls.

(Joey Weatherford/Tribune Content Agency)

“It makes it really difficult for the transgender community to access different services,” says Mariah Moore, a senior national organizer for the nonprofit advocacy group Transgender Law Center. “It really opens up our community to different types of violence and discrimination by saying, ‘You’re not who you say you are.’”

Some states – including Georgia and Tennessee – require that transgender people provide documents like a court order or a statement from a physician regarding a gender-confirming medical procedure in order to update their gender information on a driver’s license. In Texas, a certified court order or amended birth certificate that verifies the change is required.

That means the process of changing a name or gender marker can be burdensome for those who want to update their identification to reflect their identity. According to the Williams Institute report, such requirements create “significant, sometimes insurmountable barriers to obtaining accurate IDs for some transgender individuals,” particularly because not all transgender people need gender-affirming surgical care.

“In some states, trans-identified people have to get an attorney, go through the courts and petition a judge” to legally change a name, says Carmarion D. Anderson-Harvey, Alabama state director for LGBTQ+ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

Anderson-Harvey says that this process is often lengthy and expensive and that it generally is significantly easier for women to change their last names after getting married. “All these barriers can lead to transgender people not exercising their constitutional right to vote,” she says.

Compounding the issue is the fact that transgender people suffer high rates of poverty and homelessness. Transgender Americans who are people of color, disabled, low-income or homeless are “particularly likely” not to have accurate identification, according to the Williams Institute report.

“Our community members frequently don’t have affirming documentation because they don’t have a physical address,” Moore says. She adds that within the transgender community, particularly among Black transgender women, income levels are very low.

Anderson-Harvey also points to the reality that many transgender people already face rejection in their personal lives due to their identities, and that fear of rejection while trying to vote can be intimidating. Citing past research, the Williams Institute analysis says more than 30% of transgender people reported having negative experiences – including verbal harassment and physical attacks – after presenting identification that did not match their gender presentation.

The impact in the midterms may be greatest among a group of eight states in the South and Midwest that are classified by the Williams Institute analysis as having strict photo ID requirements: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

The report estimates nearly 65,000 eligible transgender voters in those states lack identification with their correct name and gender, putting them at risk of disenfranchisement.

“States can take steps to improve access to the ballot for transgender voters, including changing voter ID laws, making the process of obtaining accurate IDs simpler and more affordable, training poll workers, and reducing barriers to voting,” the report states.

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