WASHINGTON - One segment of the electorate may be unable to vote if poll workers are not able to certify their identity.
It is the reality facing hundreds of thousands of transgender Americans in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
An estimated 378,000 eligible transgender voters do not have identification such as a driver's license that reflects their name, appearance or new gender identity, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
“If those poll workers decide that those ID’s don’t adequately or accurately reflect the person who is standing in front of them, they wouldn’t be able vote,” said Jody Herman, a research scholar and co-author of the report.
The Los Angeles-based organization founded in 2001 conducts independent nonpartisan research on sexual orientation, gender identity law and public policy.
Registered voters in states with strict identification laws must produce a government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot at polling locations.
“Trans people in general are frequently placed under immediate suspicion if they don't conform visually to what their ID shows,” Sasha Buchert, a senior lawyer with Lambda Legal, told VOA Lambda Legal, founded in 1973, focuses on the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and individuals living with HIV.
Buchert identifies as a transgender female. “They're placed under higher skepticism, whether it's opening a bank account, trying to get a job or at the voting booth.”
Some transgender voters are rushing to obtain new identification documents before Election Day.
“I made an appointment for a new photo ID at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and couldn't get an appointment until January 2021," said Buchert. “I think with the coronavirus pandemic, we’re going to see problems across the country as trans people try to update their IDs in time for the election.”
To avoid potential confusion with ID requirements, Buchert will vote by mail in Washington, D.C.
Research suggests 260,000 transgender people without IDs live in one of 35 states that require voters to show a photo identification before they can vote. Political analysts say the requirements could impact Democratic Party turnout, as most transgender voters are Democrats.
Backers of voter ID laws say the laws are intended to combat fraud. Voter rights advocates contend the number of actual voter fraud cases is small and restrictions disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.
Obtaining ID documents
Some states have made it easier to make changes in identification documents such as gender markers on birth certificates, a process that varies state by state. Name changes can cost $500, in addition the costs of hiring an attorney. Advocates say in some states, transgender people must undergo gender affirming surgery that many consider invasive before their birth certificates and other identification documents can be updated.
“The process can be very costly and sometimes even impossible for trans people to complete,” Herman, the report co-author, said. “Ohio and Tennessee don't allow any changes to a birth certificate at all.”
Advocates say transgender people of color are likely to be more impacted than white voters because they have more difficulty in obtaining a proper ID. They believe the measures could have a chilling impact and keep people from voting, especially if they cannot vote by mail.
“We found just under a million trans adults would be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, but about 900,000 of those voters reside in 45 states where they do not conduct elections entirely by mail,” Herman told VOA. “Voters in those places would have to show up for in-person voting.”
Political observers predict an unprecedented number of Americans will vote by mail because of the coronavirus. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia allow excuse-free absentee voting, according to state websites.
If transgender voters are turned away at the polls, they could be made to vote on a provisional ballot instead of a regular ballot. Provisional ballots are only counted if certain requirements are met in strict voter ID states. That means they would have to come back to the election officials within a certain amount of time with an acceptable ID for their vote to be counted, according to the Williams Institute.
Increasing voter participation
Nationwide, there are an estimated 11 million LGBTQ voters, of which 1.4 million are transgender, according to surveys by Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based organization. According to its U.S. transgender survey, the party affiliation for the respondents was heavily Democratic.
“Keeping trans people from voting could favor the Republican Party that is more conservative than its Democratic rival,” said Professor Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
In 2016, the outcome of the presidential election was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in three states.
"Transgender people should not be denied their opportunity to participate in our democracy because laws and regulations around identification documents haven't kept up with reality," said Mara Keisling, head of The National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund.
While some transgender Americans report progress in obtaining updated ID’s, human rights advocates maintain transgender people of color, young students, low income, and those with disabilities are overrepresented among those who would face barriers to voting.
“We hear about folks in our community who feel so uncomfortable or who are made to feel so uncomfortable that they simply give up when they are challenged on their own identity,” said Tori Cooper, a Black transgender woman and director of community engagement for Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Justice Initiative.
“I know someone who is listed on a voter registration form as female, which does not accurately reflect their current gender identity, which is male. He's afraid the way he looks and presents himself could actually keep him from being able to vote in person,” Cooper told VOA.
“Voting is not about challenging people on their identities. It is giving people an opportunity to express their constitutional right to vote,” she said.
Election observers say mail-in voting will remove possible negative interactions between transgender voters and poll workers.
“We are trying to break down barriers, making sure folks have the tools they need to get to the polls safely or get their mail-in ballots,” said Jay Brown, senior vice president of Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “We are empowering trans people to do whatever they can and vote.”