On Wednesday, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s controversial voter ID law, deeming it unconstitutional to require additional information not already listed in the Arkansas Constitution to vote.
Despite the voting rights victory, eight states — including Texas, which recently reinstated requirements similar to those struck down in Arkansas — still have strict voter identification laws in place. Although these typically GOP-sponsored laws disproportionately affect groups that tend to favor Democrats at the polls — such as African-Americans, college students and low-income voters — there is one, less frequently discussed community that often gets disenfranchised by these requirements: transgender voters.
“Anytime you do anything involving ID documents, you are going to impact the transgender community,” said Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
While 84,000 transgender citizens are registered to vote in the eight states with restrictive ID statutes, 28 percent do not have updated identity documents that accurately reflect their gender. In states with strict voter identification laws, these voters run the risk of being turned away from the polls — or being discouraged from voting, due to the increased scrutiny. A recent study from the Williams Institute [PDF] found that this could disenfranchise up to 24,000 people in the upcoming elections.
“You are empowering poll workers to over-scrutinize transgender people,” Keisling continued. “You are making up this voter fraud problem, telling them [poll workers] that it is better to turn people away from voting than to let one person slip by.”
According to the Williams Institute study, upon presenting identification with an incorrect gender marker, 41 percent of respondents reported being harassed. Fifteen percent were asked to leave the venue and 3 percent were assaulted or attacked.
Although most transgender advocacy organizations recommend updating identity documents after undergoing a gender transition, in many states, this is easier said than done. In Georgia, for example — the state with the highest percentage of transgender voters that could potentially be disenfranchised — one can only legally change identification by providing medical documentation of gender reassignment surgery — an invasive and expensive procedure, inaccessible or unaffordable to many.
“Most folks don’t have access to medically necessary health care under their insurance plans, so they have to pay for it out of pocket” said Sasha Buchert, a staff attorney at Transgender Law Center. “If they can’t do that, which most people can’t, they have to move through the world unsafely with inaccurate ID documents.”
Factoring in that the transgender unemployment rate is double the national average [PDF], largely due to employment discrimination, and one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, it becomes increasingly clear that these sorts of documentation requirements make changing ones gender marker a cumbersome, expensive process that is not a readily available alternative for everyone.
Still, advocates are determined to get transgender citizens to the polls, promoting absentee and early voting as the best options to side-step ID requirements for the time being. However, Buchert pointed out that municipal IDs — an increasingly popular option in cities like San Francisco and New York — could be a possible alternative for the future.
“They [the city of New York] did a very interesting and welcome thing in allowing people to self-identify their gender marker,” she said. “It was a welcome development to remove those barriers”