Protecting Voting Rights for Trans People Is a Must for Us All

Morgin Dupont, 25, holds up the flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park on October 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo credit: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

When Allison VanKuiken arrived at the polls in November 2016 to vote in the U.S. presidential election, she didn’t expect to encounter any difficulties. California doesn’t have the strict voter ID requirements adopted across other states, and in most cases, voters aren’t required to show identification to a poll worker before voting. Though VanKuiken had already registered online before going to her Pasadena, California, polling place, poll workers still asked her for her ID because it was her first time voting in the state. VanKuiken, a trans femme, hadn’t changed her name or gender marker on her documents because it costs hundreds of dollars and she had only recently moved to the state. Eventually poll workers gave her a provisional ballot, which means her vote may or may not have been counted in the 2016 election.

Sometimes provisional ballots are discarded on dubious grounds, and a provisional ballot can be rejected once election officials go through a process to determine if it should be counted. “I just stood in line for an hour to vote, and then I finally get up there and am being challenged,” VanKuiken, executive director of Trans Can Work, a Los Angeles-based organization that focuses on workplace inclusion, said. “I was just thinking about all the other trans people who had to vote. If they don’t have this correct alignment with ID and presentation, there could be a lot of similar experiences to what I’m feeling and that’s not right.” Though VanKuiken said it was difficult to determine if the poll worker would’ve given her a provisional ballot if she were cisgender—that uncertainty is part and parcel for transgender voters—particularly those who are at the beginning phases of their transition, though transition often means different things for different trans people. “My ID at the time was very masculine, pre-hormones, and all that,” she said. “I was nervous about exposing myself.”

As with many voter registration and suppression issues, it’s hard to tell exactly what happened that day at the polls. But VanKuiken’s experience is familiar for many transgender people who go to the polls. In February, the Williams Institute, a think tank focused on LGBTQ people at the UCLA School of Law, released a study that found that about 260,000 voting-eligible trans people live in states with voter ID laws and don’t have identification that accurately reflects their gender and name. Of that group, 81,000 trans people live in the states with the strictest ID laws, which means they could encounter disenfranchisement during the 2020 election.

These challenges at the polls are often tied to many states’ expensive and difficult process for gender marker and name changes on government documents. States can require proof of surgery, court orders, amended birth certificates, and certification from medical providers for someone to change their ID, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. These barriers are especially limiting in states with strict voter ID laws: Thirty-five states have laws that request or require some identification, and seven states have strict photo ID laws.

Destiny Clark, a transgender woman who lives in Greater Birmingham, Alabama, has not been able to change her gender marker on her driver’s license, though she has been able to change her first name. Alabama is one of nine states that requires proof of surgery from trans people, who do not always want surgery or may not be able to afford it, before issuing an updated driver’s license. During the 2018 midterm elections, Clark was able to vote, but not without trouble. “The poll worker was really nice up until the point where she checked my ID. Then when she saw it, I was misgendered and she said it out loud,” Clark said. “She said, ‘Here you go sir,’ in front of a room full of people.”

The outing of trans people at the polls can place them in danger: Trans people often face a disproportionate amount of harassment and violence in their everyday lives. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 48 percent of respondents said they had been verbally harassed, denied equal treatment, or physically attacked in the past year because they were transgender. Nearly one in ten said they had been physically attacked. And this level of violence and harassment is often worse for trans women of color. Muhlaysia Booker, a Black transgender woman, was assaulted by several men in a Dallas, Texas, parking lot in April 2019 after being involved in a car accident. She was fatally shot a month later.

At least 26 trans people were killed last year, the majority of them Black women, and this year, there have been at least three violent deaths of trans people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s a very small town where I vote, so it could have led to me being hurt outside or someone following me home, attacking me when I’m at home alone, so it was definitely a scary experience,” Clark said. Clark joined a class-action American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against Alabama filed in February 2019 that aims to change the state’s driver’s license policy to make it easier for trans people to change their identifying documents.

In a country where 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense, it’s unreasonable to expect trans people to spend upwards of that for new documentation. 

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Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said the Alabama law hurts trans people who have limited access to healthcare. “It has a lot to do with access to medical care in general, so if you don’t have health insurance or you may have a doctor but not someone who understands trans issues, it may be difficult to provide documentation, and that just creates another barrier to trans people participating in public life across the board,” he told Bitch. Arkles added that Alabama’s requirements are particularly harmful to trans people. “In Alabama, one thing that really strikes me about the rule is that they have a requirement that people have ‘complete sex reassignmet surgery’ and the way they define it is to require forms of genital surgery that also result in sterilization, which to me is a particularly extreme abuse. Trans people basically have the choice to get a type of surgery that they may not want or need and they may not be able to afford and which permanently affects their ability to have children or to go without ID they can use.”

Transgender rights advocates say a comprehensive approach is necessary for reforming voting rights for trans people. “We need to be working on both sides of the equation. Training poll workers to understand what the rights of trans people are is as important as training trans people to understand what their rights are,” said Gillian Branstetter, a spokesperson at the National Women’s Law Center who previously worked at the National Center for Transgender Equality. “One of the reasons voter ID laws are passed is in order to suppress the votes of communities of color and communities living in poverty. I’m under no delusion that people writing those laws aren’t thinking about trans people, especially trans people in communities of color,” Branstetter said. “Trans people are twice as likely to live in poverty, and we are becoming an increasing focus of the national political conversation….The best way for anyone to hear trans people is that when a law shows any potential for harm and that includes the trans community that should be a deep concern to election officials and anyone who cares about the health of our American democracy.”

The February report from the Williams Institute estimates that 965,350 transgender adults will be eligible to vote in November, making this issue even more vital. In 2018, when a transgender man named Daniel Chitwood, who had changed his name eight months prior to voting, went to vote in Alachua County, Florida, poll workers questioned the authenticity of his signature. According to the local television station WUFT, Chitwood submitted a provisional ballot, but the county canvassing board was ready to reject his ballot until witnesses came forward to ask the board to reconsider. Simone Chriss, a staff attorney at Southern Legal Counsel who was county counsel on the Voter Protection Team for the Florida Democratic Party at precincts in Alachua County at the time, told the board Chitwood should’ve been offered a signature differs oath instead of a provisional ballot.

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People who change their name due to marriage or divorce are also offered signature differs oath forms. Having Chitwood sign his dead name, which would have been stigmatizing and should not be required, was another option that would’ve allowed him to cast his vote. “The poll worker who was there and reported the issue with me had seen two or three people come through that day who had changed their last name due to marriage or had gone back to their maiden name after divorce and their signature did not match the last signature they provided,” Chriss told Bitch. “They were handed, with no question, a signature differs oath.” Experiences like these can turn trans people off from going to the polls. Chitwood told WUFT that his experience “makes me not want to go vote again.” While states like Alabama and Florida continue to find ways to restrict voting rights, there has been some progress in California.

The state has partnered with Equality California to train poll workers on how to protect transgender people’s voting rights, which includes telling poll workers that someone whose name on voter rolls does not match their gender or gender expression should not be denied the right to vote. California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced the state’s plan to train poll workers on best practices in October 2019. Chriss said better training poll workers on the specific issues facing trans voters face would also help improve the voting process and prevent disenfranchisement. Lawmakers also need to work on changing restrictive voting laws and regulations, Branstetter said.

In a country where 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 for an unexpected expense, she said it’s unreasonable to expect trans people to spend upwards of that for new documentation. “It’s your documentation, so there should really be no cost to you updating your own information, and it should be minimal at best,” she said. “The system is built for this….Telling someone you must complete that process to vote poses a great threat to making sure everyone can vote.” Meanwhile, VanKuiken said she isn’t taking any chances after her attempt to vote in 2016. She tries to pass as more masculine when she goes to the polls, such as wearing loose clothing, in the hopes of avoiding an ID and appearance mismatch. “I don’t like dressing down and having to pass for more masculine, but that has been my experience and it can definitely be a deterrent,” she said. “But I am committed to actually voting, so I have my vote plan and will carry through and do these extraordinary things to make sure my vote is counted.”

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by Casey Quinlan
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Casey Quinlan is the LGBTQ reporter for The American Independent. Their work has appeared in publications such as the New Republic, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, In These Times, Glamour, BustleSupermajority News, and Vox