Why some transgender voters have an even bigger challenge to casting their ballots

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Ozias, a transgender man from Corpus Christi, Texas, couldn’t afford to legally change his name or update his ID before he went to vote in state elections in November 2013.

He brought his old ID — with a name he no longer used and a photo that no longer resembled him — to the polls that year.

Poll workers grilled him on his identity. They attempted to stop him from voting, he told CNN. He insisted he was the person in his picture.

Ozias, who’s been a poll worker and a member of provisional ballot voting boards, eventually cast his vote after the initial resistance.

“I am lucky enough that I’ve worked around the electoral process and knew what my rights were,” said Ozias, who’s had challenges voting since. “My concern has always been with people who don’t.”

Voter ID requirements, purportedly put in place to prevent voter fraud, typically end up keeping Black, indigenous and transgender voters from voting at all if they don’t have the proper identification, critics say.
Transgender people make up an estimated 1.4 million people in the US, according to the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law at UCLA. More than 965,000 of those trans people are eligible to vote, but over 378,000 of them — around 40% — don’t have accurate IDs, according to the institute.

Voter ID laws could create a particular challenge for trans voters this election cycle since the coronavirus pandemic has made it tougher to get new IDs.

It’s rare to hear about a transgender person being turned away at the polls, trans advocates told CNN. It’s much more likely that the barriers to voting, be it an ID issue or fear of discrimination, keep trans people from even attempting to vote.

“It hurts trans people when trans people don’t vote,” said Mara Keisling, founder and executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “If we want the government to take us into account better, we have to take the government into account. We have to vote. We have to participate.”

The trouble with IDs

Much of the issue for trans voters boils down to their ID. If a transgender person’s name or gender identity no longer matches their government-issued ID, they’ll face added scrutiny at the polls in most states.

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As of 2020, 35 states require voters to present ID to vote. The lawmakers who put voter ID requirements in place say they’re intended to prevent voter fraud. But voter fraud is rare, small-scale and almost always caught by election officials. There’s little evidence in states that “significant voter impersonation” takes place, said Chad Dunn, a voting rights attorney and co-founder of the UCLA Voting Rights Project.

“These laws were designed and structured to benefit some people with certain IDs more than others,” Dunn said. “There’s no doubt that a law requiring you to have an ID has a discriminatory effect on transgender people.”

Transgender people whose name and appearance no longer matches their ID may be given a provisional ballot, which should be provided to every voter if there’s a question about their eligibility or registration, Dunn said.

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Provisional ballots are later considered by a “ballot board,” or a local committee of election officials who determine whether the vote is counted, Dunn said.

But poorly trained poll workers may not provide a voter with a provisional ballot, Dunn said. If that voter doesn’t know to ask for one, they may not end up voting at all.

Trans voters who want to legally change their name and gender and then update their ID face a lengthy process that involves paying court fees, submitting to background checks and presenting extensive medical documentation, said Arli Christian, a campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The coronavirus adds an additional wrinkle to the name-change process, causing months-long closures of courts, DMVs and Social Security offices where those name changes and ID updates take place. Even now that many offices are reopening, backlogs have clogged up the process and appointments aren’t available for months, Christian said.

Trans voters have sued over discrimination

Some transgender voters who’ve been challenged while voting have sued election boards and states to prevent discrimination in the future.

Earlier this year, a voter in Cornelius, North Carolina, sued the state elections board and others for what she described in the suit as a humiliating voting experience.

She was voting from her car, an accommodation the county made for voters with disabilities, in local elections last November. She filled out her ballot and signed it with her legal birth name, a name she no longer uses as a transgender woman, she said in the suit.

The poll worker who picked up her ballot asked the voter to pronounce her name out loud, so she did. She again signed her legal name upon request. She pronounced her name aloud again, too, according to the lawsuit.

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After some back and forth, another election official approached her car and demanded the voter show her ID.

“For YOU, ID is required because your face does not match your name,” the election official said, according to the voter, who is not named in the lawsuit.

At the time, there wasn’t a voter ID law in effect in North Carolina, and a court order has blocked ID requirements in the current election. It was illegal, the lawsuit alleges, for the election official to request the voter’s ID.

Eventually, after the voter “reluctantly” handed over her ID, she was allowed to vote. The poll worker noted aloud that her name and gender didn’t match what was listed on her ID, according to the lawsuit.

The experience, the voter says in the lawsuit, caused her severe emotional distress.

The suit was dismissed, but the voter and her attorney, Faith Fox, have filed an appeal. She’s updated her ID, too, Fox said, and is prepared to vote in person in the general election.

Ozias, the Corpus Christi voter, was one of several transgender plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott, among others, for discriminatory voting practices. Dunn was one of the attorneys who represented Ozias.

Ultimately, Dunn and the team of attorneys successfully proved the voter ID law was discriminatory. But Ozias says he knows he won’t be the last trans person to be interrogated before being allowed to vote in Texas.

Voting while trans is already a challenge

Much of the barriers to voting are baked into being trans, said Bri Barnett, director of development at Trans Lifeline, a trans-led nonprofit that provides “microgrants” to trans people to legally change their names and IDs.

“There are so many non-ID-based barriers to trans people’s voting,” she told CNN, pointing to a lack of economic opportunity for transgender people as among those factors.

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Trans people often don’t have stable housing — one in five trans people has been homeless, per the National Center for Transgender Equality — so they may not have an address to register to vote.
Trans people are also twice as likely to live in poverty as the general US population and work lower paying jobs, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey, the most recent data available on the experiences of trans people in the US. A lower income can hold them back from going ahead with legal name changes.
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Those obstacles can keep trans voters from ever making it to a polling place, said Keisling, founder of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

“Most of the cases of any kind of voter suppression aren’t ever going to be known,” she said. “We’ve had very few cases of trans people coming forward saying, ‘I was denied the right to vote.’ But we’ve heard from people who’ve said they shouldn’t vote because they fear they’ll be disrespected or turned away.”

Keisling said she expects trans voters to show up in droves this year to make themselves heard, even if there’s a chance they could be interrogated or discriminated against.

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Ozias’ attorneys won their suit, but he still says he needs to be strategic about voting. He hasn’t legally changed his sex on his ID because he can’t afford the cost. He usually brings his passport with him, which is updated to accurately reflect his gender, to vote instead. Not every poll worker is used to confirming someone’s identity through a passport, though, he said.

“It’s a balancing act, depending on where I go and who’s working there that year and how much training they’ve had,” he said.

When he votes again this year, he’ll face another obstacle. He’s lost weight since his last ID photo was taken, and he hasn’t been able to take hormone injections due to the pandemic, so he’ll look “significantly different than what my ID picture looks like,” he said.

What trans voters should know before they vote

Vote early or by mail. Voting by mail bypasses the potential for being misgendered or questioned about an ID, and early voting should be less crowded, Keisling said. There’s also more time to rectify any mistakes or discrepancies at polling places during early voting, she said.

Bring a plus-one. Barnett encourages trans voters to go to the polls with a friend — someone who can back them up if they’re questioned or face cruelty.

“It’s a lot harder to discriminate when you have support systems there, when people know that other people are watching,” she said. “It discourages bad behaviors.”

Know your rights. It’s not legal for poll workers to deny a ballot to a trans person based on their gender, Dunn said. If voters are turned away because they’re transgender, they should call the Election Protection Helpline, a nonpartisan resource to ensure fair voting, to make sure their ballot is cast.

Poll workers also shouldn’t ask trans voters about their medical history, Hall said — that falls into sex discrimination. That would merit another call to the Election Protection Helpline.

Bring additional documentation. If you fear a poll worker will challenge your ID, bring some additional documents to prove you are who you say you are, like a utility bill, student ID, credit card or passport, the National Center for Transgender Equality suggests.

What trans voters should do if their vote is challenged

It’s possible you could be challenged at a polling place. The National Center for Transgender Equality, through its Transform the Vote campaign, offers advice:

Look for a lawyer. If an election official denies you a ballot based on your ID, look for an attorney volunteering at the polls. They may be able to assist you in your discussion with the official and tell you what rights you have as a voter.

Request a provisional ballot. If election officials take issue with your identification, request a provisional ballot. Election officials will decide whether it can be counted after the election.

Call the Election Protection Helpline. If you’re at an impasse at a polling place and aren’t allowed to vote, contact the Election Protection Helpline at 866-OUR-VOTE. Lawyers can answer questions you have and tell you what your options are.

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