Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new report examines the costs and burdens transgender citizens face in trying to comply with photo ID voter laws.
Part of the grand short-sightedness of voter ID laws is that they depend upon obsolete notions of fixed identity for participation rights in a democracy premised, in many ways, on changing identities. People change their minds about politics, which is why we have elections every few years. People frequently move, or get evicted, or foreclosed on, and change addresses. Names change when people marry or get divorced. Names and appearances can change when people undergo a gender transition or come to identify as “non binary,” falling somewhere between genders.
None of these changes invalidate people’s eligibility to to cast votes, but voter ID laws certainly make elections tougher for the people experiencing these transitions. And few voters have as much trouble on Election Day in voter ID states than transgender people. The UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute offers some estimation of those unique burdens in its new report “Voter ID Laws and Their Added Costs for Transgender Voters”:
It may be difficult and costly for a transgender person to obtain photo identification that accurately reflects their gender and appearance after they have transitioned. Updating forms of ID with a change of gender is a unique responsibility that transgender people bear in order to vote in strict photo ID states. The processes involved in updating IDs have costs that impose disparate burdens on transgender Americans who wish to vote in these states. These costs are significant.
It’s hard to put a number on what those costs are. Every state has different rules on updating names and gender markers on IDs, every voter ID state has different rules on what acceptable ID is, and even those rules vary within counties. Unlike cisgender voters—people whose gender presentation matches accepted standards of the sex they were assigned at birth—who are just changing an address or last name after marriage, transgender people must find a physician who will write a letter verifying their gender identity in order to change the gender marker on most accepted ID.
This is a letter many physicians will write only under certain conditions, such as when a patient opts for gender-affirming surgery. Many transgender people, however, choose not to have invasive surgery, for a range of personal, medical, and financial reasons. Yet this is part of the criteria that some states—including Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia—have for allowing a person to change the gender marker on their license.
Assuming a person even desires gender-affirming surgery, it certainly isn’t cheap, even if you have health insurance. All of those medical expenses get added to the base costs of changing or updating government-issued ID cards, which, as seen in the table above, can range from $11 to upwards of $50. For new passports, that can run as much as $150.
Those who are able to finance and finagle all of this then have to worry about navigating the courts, which in many voter ID states, have the power to determine whether a person’s gender transition is legitimate enough to change their government-issued ID. The Williams Institute report gives an example of what a transgender voter in Kansas will have to go through to obtain the necessary ID to vote after transitioning:
Two forms of ID that are accepted when voting in Kansas include a driver’s license and a non-driver ID card. In order to update the gender marker and change the photo on one of these forms of ID, a transgender person has two options. They may obtain a court order of gender change and submit this along with their current driver’s license or ID card and pay a replacement fee ($16 for a driver’s license or $12 for an ID card) at a driver’s licensing exam station. It is not clear what the process is for obtaining the court order of gender change, and localities likely address this issue differently. There are costs for filing a civil petition in court, in addition to costs associated with obtaining copies of the order and providing necessary documentation to the court. The court docket fee set by the Kansas legislature is $173. This fee, along with an additional surcharge fee and fees set by the individual’s county of residence, is required for a petition of name change, which may be similar in cost to a petition for gender change. A fee waiver based on an individual’s ability to pay is available.
Alabama, Mississippi, and Indiana require transgender people to provide both a letter from their physician—only after a transition-related surgery—as well as a court order verifying the gender change in order to have their driver’s license updated. For Alabama, it’s tough enough just getting to a DMV office, let alone to a surgeon and court to have this taken care of.
It’s no surprise, then, that the national Transgender Discrimination survey (nTDs) found in 2011 that 37 percent of transgender adults who did not have surgery did not have a driver’s license that correctly reflected their gender. The survey service found in 2012 that as many as 27 percent of transgender citizens have no form of ID that accurately reflects their gender at all. The Williams Institute found in a 2014 study that as many as 24,000 transgender people faced additional barriers and possible disenfranchisement in that year’s elections.
Transgender voters who make it through the DMV, doctors, and courts still must contend with the bigotry of local elected officials presiding over elections. Poll workers take each potential voter’s ID and look to see if it matches with the voter’s face. Poll workers are often given a lot of discretion on this, and personal biases could lead them to reject certain transgender voters’ IDs, forcing them to vote by provisional ballot or not vote at all. During the 2012 elections, the voter suppression group True the Vote was caught handing out poll watcher training manuals with transphobic images and messages such as these:
The National Center for Transgender Equality provides additional information and resources for transgender voters to help them comply with new voter ID laws. It’s important to note that voter ID laws do not protect against the kind of voter impersonation fraud that their proponents claim. What a wide range of research does acknowledge is that voter ID laws are effective in suppressing the voter turnout of people of color. Transgender voters are in no easier position.