“Can I See Some ID?”

New photo identification laws could decrease turnout of transgender voters.
by Julia O’Donoghue

Kit Yan gets nervous every time he walks into a voting station. During the last several election cycles, Yan, 28, had many poll workers question his identity—sometimes in a loud, public and humiliating way.

“My name doesn’t match people’s perception of my gender presentation, and so the person at the polling booth doesn’t believe me,” says Yan, a transgender person who works as a spoken word artist and lives in Brooklyn.

In a past primary election, Yan’s partner at the time volunteered to come with him. At first, Yan hesitated to say yes, worrying he would feel embarrassed if a poll worker asked any questions. Eventually, he accepted the offer; it would be better to have some support if a problem surfaced.

“I think twice about [voting] all the time,” he says. “Most of the time I end up going to vote, but it is with anxiety.”

The problems Yan encounters when casting a ballot as a transgender person could worsen this year, as some states now require voters to present updated, government-issued photo identification. Transgender people may have a hard time obtaining this ID depending on different states’ policies about legal changes to names and gender markers.

In April, the Williams Institute, an LGBT-focused think tank housed at UCLA School of Law, foundnew voter ID laws in nine states could disenfranchise more than 25,000 transgender voters in next month’s presidential election.

Study author Jody Herman says that since the study was conducted, some of these laws have changed. For example, while Pennsylvania voters are not legally required to present photo identification this year, “[it] all depends on what the individual voter decides to do at the polls and how poll workers will react to them,” she says. She also suggests a similar ambiguity will exist in Texas. “It is unclear what will happen there,” she says.

Despite changes in legislation, the number of disenfranchised voters will stay the same in Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee and Kansas, meaning that almost 10,000 voters will still be affected this year, according to Herman.

“What was surprising to me was that number. I was surprised that it was as large as it was,” Herman says. “Voter ID laws do create a unique barrier for transgender people who would otherwise be eligible to vote.”

For her report, Herman drew heavily from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, of which she is also an author. The 2011 study is sponsored by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force. It found that 40 percent of transgender citizens who are “living full time as another gender” have not updated their driver’s licenses, and 74 percent do not have an accurate passport.

Certain states make it extremely difficult to change the gender marker on a driver’s license or birth certificate. Some state workers may assume that a person is trying to commit fraud or evade law enforcement when people try to change their gender on identity documents.

“Most people take identification for granted, but that’s a thing transgendered people really have to think about,” says Vincent Villano, director of communications of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

In early October, NCTE launched Voting While Trans, a campaign devoted to educating the public about the problems transgender voters might face and providing information and resources for trans voters. As part of this effort, NCTE also released a series of public service announcements, including one spot starring Yan.

“I think people are probably aware of the voter ID issue,” Herman says. “I think people are probably less aware of the impact it has on transgender people.”

Celeste Mora contributed reporting. 

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© 2012 Medill Equal Media Project
Medill School of Journalism | Northwestern University
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