Voter ID Laws May Disproportionately Affect Transgender Community

Hundreds gathered for the transgender march at Atlanta Pride in early October. The transgender community can often encounter barriers when trying to vote.
Hundreds gathered for the transgender march at Atlanta Pride in early October. The transgender community can often encounter barriers when trying to vote.
Credit Emma Hurt / WABE

Requiring voters to show a photo ID to cast a ballot is controversial.

Supporters say the policy ensures the legitimacy of elections; critics say it’s a form of voter suppression. But the practice might disproportionately affect one minority group: the transgender community.

It’s a side effect of a larger problem: barriers to getting names and gender markers on IDs to match them.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, director of external affairs at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said voter ID laws have an impact on trans people.

“When you’re going to the polls and you have an identification card that might not match what you’re appearing as,” she said. “There might be some confusion by the poll worker who is just trying to do their job, of course.”

And Georgia, the most populous state with strict voter ID laws, has the most transgender people at risk of this confusion. That’s according to a report from the Williams Institute at UCLA, which puts the number at about 20,000.

Participants take part in the transgender march at October’s Atlanta Pride. Georgia is the most populous state with strict voter ID laws. And these laws can have an impact on trans people when they go to vote. (Emma Hurt/WABE)

“Trans people are in a unique position that there is a whole administrative system governing how trans people are able to get accurate IDs,” said Jody Herman, one of the report’s authors and a public policy scholar at the UCLA School of Law. “They are a group that, I would say, have a disproportionate burden to complying with voter ID laws.”

Each state handles gender and name changes differently. In Georgia, a judge has to approve a name change.

To change a gender marker on your driver’s license, you can either go directly to the Department of Driver Services or get a court order from a judge. In both cases, a doctor’s letter documenting gender reassignment surgery is required.

The problem is that there are different kinds of transgender surgeries, and some trans people don’t get any surgery at all.

Chanel Haley is the gender inclusion organizer at Georgia Equality, which advocates for the LGBT community. The Georgia process leaves room for subjective interpretation by doctors, judges and Driver Services employees, she explained.

“If your medical professional is willing to write that letter and how they word it. And A. if a judge will accept that, or B. if when you’re going to the DMV to change your license, if they’ll accept that.”

“[The subjectivity] is where the roadblock will come in mostly,” she said. “And if you want to get even more deep into that, that’s really about if you’re passable or not. If they believe that, ‘Oh this person probably did actually have their surgery, so I believe this letter.’”

“Either way you’re presenting a very high level of medical privacy that is absolutely not required in other situations,” said Dru Levasseur, staff attorney with Lambda Legal in Atlanta. “And it’s not in line with the medical community’s understanding of gender transition.”

Haley and a coalition of Georgians have been lobbying to change the Driver Services policy for a few months and are also working to educate doctors about the issue.

Ria Drane, at the transgender march in early October, said potential ID obstacles will not prevent her from trying to vote in the November elections. “Sometimes I can just show someone my ID and have my finger over the gender marker and they don’t even look,” she said. (Emma Hurt/WABE)

Ria Drane is studying to be a social worker in Kennesaw, north of Atlanta. She and hundreds of others gathered for the transgender march at Atlanta Pride in early October.

Drane managed to change her name after finding a judge she knew was trans-friendly. But not her gender marker, since she didn’t get a surgery, she said.

That won’t stop her from trying to vote in November.

“Sometimes I can just show someone my ID and have my finger over the gender marker and they don’t even look,” she said. “I am very fortunate that some people can’t tell I’m trans at a glance, so sometimes, I can just squeeze by.”

Elections officials in Fulton County in Atlanta say poll workers aren’t supposed to check for gender. They are just supposed to check that the photo matches the person, and matches the voter registration.

But every county trains poll workers differently.

There is a workaround that Drane is using to change her gender marker: Skipping over Georgia and getting a passport because the federal government does not require the surgery. It just requires a letter documenting a “transition,” not a surgery.

That workaround is another hurdle though, one that costs time and money.

Zahara Green, founder and executive director of TRANScending Barriers Atlanta, said usually the cost of a passport is a barrier that stops many trans people from lining up their identification.

“A passport is around $200, so most people can’t go through the process,” she said. “Which we have seen because we assist with name changes and gender marker changes.”

“The reality, I think, for a lot of transgender people in Georgia is they do not have access to changing their name or gender marker,” Levasseur said. “Not only from the systemic barriers that Georgia has as a state with the policy, but it requires money. It requires access and knowledge and that is not at the fingertips of most transgender people.”

Christa O’Neill is a transgender woman from Atlanta who was also at Pride. A Georgia judge rejected her name change, even though she’s been living as a woman for years. She hasn’t been able to try again, so both her name and gender on her license won’t match her in November.

“It’s going to be really difficult to save up any money so it’s just kind of at the back of my mind at this point,” she said. “Which sucks because I’d love to have a name that actually matches what I go by, and I’d love to have a gender marker that matched what I am.”

Because of that mismatch, she sometimes faces skepticism and hostility when she has to show ID.

“It hurts a lot, and you definitely feel like Georgia just doesn’t really care about its trans people. It’s hard,” she said.

But despite the difficulty, O’Neill still plans to vote in this election.

Editor’s Note: The spelling of  Lambda Legal has  corrected in this report.

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