The Republican campaign of voter suppression — voter ID laws, closures of polling places, voter purges — is normally aimed at making it harder for people of color to vote, in the hopes of preserving Republicans’ white-minority rule for as long as possible.
But another population has found itself in the crosshairs of Voter ID laws in particular: trans folks, who often face insurmountable obstacles in the way of getting accurate IDs and harassment from poll workers who question their identities.
According to a new report by UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute, there are 878,300 transgender adults eligible to vote this year, and 203,700 of them do not have IDs that reflect their correct name or gender. And of those, 64,800 reside in states with strict voter ID laws.
Which means, simply put, that some of those 64,800 people may not be allowed to vote at all.
That’s enough suppressed votes to swing an election. Kathryn Kay O’Neill, one of the authors of the study, notes that “there may be tens of thousands of a trans people in a given state who don’t have correct IDs, and the margin of an election may be only tens of thousands of votes.” For example, the 2018 Florida governor’s race, which brought us the appalling Ron “Don’t Say Gay” DeSantis, was decided by just 32,463 votes.
So, you might ask, why is it that over 200,000 trans people lack correct IDs?
Because it’s incredibly hard to get them. “If you’re trans, it’s a lot more difficult to have a correct ID than if you’re cis,” says O’Neill. “There are a lot of steps involved, and those steps can be really burdensome or expensive. In some states, trans folks are required to get a doctor’s note, or even proof of gender confirmation surgery. Some of these requirements are completely out of reach for many trans people.”
Olivia Hunt, Policy Director at the National Center for Transgender Equality, notes that in recent years, states have made it even harder to modify one’s official identification. “In some states, it costs up to $800 to change your name. In Michigan, you have to live in the same county for a year before you can change your name, so if you’re a college student, you never can. And Pennsylvania bans anyone with a felony conviction from changing their name until two years after being released from prison.”
And then, if a trans person shows up at a polling station, they can be turned away entirely if they lack a proper ID.
“Every election cycle, we hear stories of trans people having trouble at the polls,” Hunt continues. “Poll workers might say their documentation is fraudulent, or they’re trying to impersonate another voter.”
In fact, Hunt says this happened to her personally. “I live in an area generally very accepting and welcoming of trans people,” she says, “and yet the first time I went to vote after my name change, I had to go back and forth with everyone in the precinct saying I was the person on the voter rolls and should be allowed to vote.”
Now, some people might say these problems are just an unfortunate side-effect of a policy necessary to prevent voter fraud.
But those people would be wrong. In fact, voter fraud is, in President Biden’s memorable term, malarkey. It’s a myth – an excuse for policies which just so happen to target Black and Brown people and make it harder for them to vote.
Seventy-five years ago, bogus claims about fraudulent voting were the pretext for Jim-Crow-era “literacy tests,” which for decades were aimed at making it impossible for Black people to vote in many Southern states. (Go ahead, take this “literacy test” from 1965 Alabama, and see how many questions you get right.) Of course there wasn’t any real crisis — the only ‘crisis’ was white supremacists losing some of their power.
And after President Obama’s 2008 victory, suddenly “voter fraud” became some sort of epidemic, even though hardly any cases of it were ever found. An exhaustive study by a Loyola law professor found that between 2000 and 2014, there were all of 31 reported instances of voter impersonation – the form of fraud that Voter ID laws supposedly prevent — out of more than a billion votes cast during the period.
Or consider Trump’s presidential commission on “election integrity,” chaired by Kris Kobach, the nation’s leading liar when it comes to making up stories about voter fraud. When Kobach was secretary of state of Kansas, he suspended over 31,000 Kansas voters, disproportionately people of color, yet during his whole time in office, he only found three cases of fraud, all of which were mistakes, in which senior citizens voted in two states by accident. And in a spectacular defeat in a 2018 court case, a federal judge rebutted all of the (flimsy) evidence Kobach adduced for his actions.
So how much fraud did Kobach’s commission find? Basically, none at all, certainly nothing that could have influenced an election. In fact, as David Daley wrote in Rolling Stone two years ago, it was “forced to close down without confirming a single example.”
And yet, while there’s no such thing as widespread voter fraud, voter suppression has an enormous impact. For example, in 2015, North Carolina decided to cut back early voting, close certain polling spots, and institute strict voter-ID laws. All three just so happened to disproportionately affect less-affluent voters and people of color — constituencies that tend to vote for Democrats. The result? In 2016, one local official bragged that “African American Early Voting Is Down 8.5 percent.” Donald Trump carried the state by 177,509 votes. (The definitive work on this history is Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Read it and weep.)
But of course, all these efforts went on steroids after 2020. Fraudulent grifters like the “True the Vote” organization (which Trump regularly acknowledges at his rallies) simply made stuff up, with no evidence whatsoever: 3 million illegal votes in 2016 (a claim Trump repeated ad nauseam) 13 million (sometimes 22 million) in 2020. ‘Ballot harvesting,’ drop boxes, mail-in voting – what were, in fact, policies for voting during a deadly global pandemic were depicted as a great left-wing conspiracy to steal the election.
The results of those lies wasn’t just a bloody insurrection that killed capitol police officers and nearly overthrew the government, but also a wave of new laws making it harder and harder to vote – again, just so happening to target marginalized populations. In just the last two years, 24 states have passed 56 laws that change or restrict their voting procedures.
Now, it’s not clear whether trans populations are just caught in the voter suppression crossfire, or whether they’re being specifically targeted.
“If you’d asked me that question in 2014 or 2010, I would’ve said that nobody was deliberately targeting transgender people for exclusion at the polls,” says Hunt. “This time, though, with all the attacks we’ve been seeing, I would not be surprised if there is intent to exclude trans people from voting by enforcement of voter ID laws.”
That’s especially true with the new crop of election deniers now in charge of elections in many jurisdictions. Poll workers have enormous discretion; if they want to disqualify someone they think is trans or non-binary, they often have the power to do so. “People who are looking to exclude marginalized voices are not going to hesitate to exclude trans people if they have the opportunity to do so,” Hunt says.
So what can be done?
For trans people, Hunt has three suggestions. “First,” she says, “go in with a plan: what documents to bring, what to do if there’s a challenge — review a ‘Know Your Rights’ guide for your state to learn more. And second, bring the number of the voter protection hotline for your jurisdiction. If there’s any trouble, call the hotline, and they will walk you through the process so you can get your vote cast.”
Hunt also urges anyone who may have changed their names recently to check their voter registration. “Make sure it’s accurate, so that when you get to the polls, you won’t have any surprises.”
And for allies, there is a lot of work to do.
There are numerous organizations fighting against Republican voter suppression, and they need your help. Vote Riders helps people (especially people of color) to get the ID they need to vote and to respond to any election official who challenges them. Movement Voter Project supports with BIPOC-led grassroots organizations in swing states. The National Center for Transgender Quality is helping trans populations in particular. Fair Fight, the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, When We All Vote — the list goes on and on.
Perhaps most importantly, Hunt says, “one of the best things people can do is to look for local programs that will let them do voter protection work as poll monitors, or people on site who can answer questions, who can advocate for voters. You don’t need to be an attorney. These programs exist in almost every state, and they are the best way to get involved and protect elections.”And, of course, vote, and help your friends to vote, your queer and BIPOC friends especially. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, as Offred (and also The Toasters) put it – fight back. “Voting is one of the most important ways to make our voices matter,” says Hunt. “Trans people, like all others, have a constitutional right to vote. Every one of us should fight for it if challenged. Extremists should not be allowed to stop us.”