How Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise Transgender Americans

An Alabama driver's license tinted in the transgender flag colors, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

As Pride Month wraps up, we’re reflecting on how far the fight for equal representation has come — and how much farther there is to go until all LGBTQ+ Americans have their voices fairly heard at the ballot box and are treated with dignity at the polls. In today’s Data Dive, we dig deeper into one instance where voter suppression laws disproportionately impact members of the LGBTQ+ community: voter ID laws.  A favorite of Republicans who want to limit ballot access, voter ID laws are harmful to many communities that face barriers to ballot access, but they especially impact transgender voters who often face challenges in obtaining an ID that accurately reflects their gender identity. 

In the study “The Potential Impact of Voter Identification Laws on Transgender Voters,” scholars Kathryn O’Neill and Jody L. Herman delve deeper into the numbers to assess just how many trans Americans live in states where strict voter ID laws could limit their ability to cast a ballot — and the amount of effort and excess cost they must overcome in order to have their voices heard compared to their cisgender neighbors. 

Here are the key takeaways:

1. Over 40% of eligible transgender voters lack identification that accurately reflects their name or gender.

Using data from the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), the authors of this study summarize some important topline numbers that give a sense of the scale of disenfranchisement trans voters face. In 2020, almost one million transgender Americans were eligible to vote in the presidential election. 27% live in states with voter ID laws, but lack qualifying identification that reflects their name and gender. This group — over a quarter of a million voters — is disproportionately younger, low-income, and non-white, meaning that the barriers to voting continue to compound for many trans Americans. These types of restrictive laws are not limited to one region of the U.S.; 35 states had voter ID laws in place for the 2020 election, and 18 of them required voters to show a photo ID at the polls. 

Lacking an ID that accurately reflects one’s name and gender can be more than just a legal problem — it also opens trans voters up to serious harassment when presenting their identification at the polls. If a voter’s appearance on Election Day does not match that on their government-issued ID, they are more likely to be subject to challenges by poll workers and turned away from their polling place. Over 30% of trans voters told the USTS they had a negative experience when showing their IDs at the polls, ranging from being turned away from the polls, to verbal harassment and physical assault. The process of voting for trans Americans can not only be a difficult one to complete, but also a deeply upsetting and traumatic experience. Voter ID laws create another opportunity during which trans voters may be subject to unequal treatment and intimidation when attempting to exercise their legal right to vote. 

2. Updating one’s identification is expensive, time-consuming and sometimes impossible.

There are many reasons why voters may be unable to obtain photo IDs — it can be costly, DMVs and other service centers can be difficult to reach without a car or have prohibitive hours for working people, or age and disability can make the physical trip to get ID hard to complete. These are barriers that face all voters every time they attempt to get an ID — but trans voters are more likely to have to go through the process more often in order to update their identification once living according to their true gender identity. Getting new identification requires money, time and effort — and in some states, trans Americans must satisfy burdensome and invasive requirements, such as proving they underwent gender-affirming surgery or obtaining a court order approving the change of gender on their IDs. As these financial and administrative barriers continue to stack up, it is unsurprising that the USTS found one-third of trans Americans do not have an ID that reflects their correct name. Obtaining a correct ID in a state with voter ID laws is a long and arduous process, forcing trans voters to overcome significant barriers before they even arrive at their polling location.

3. Transgender Americans face unique barriers to ballot access — but there are ways to improve these disparities.

Voter ID laws are by no means the only barrier facing the trans community when it comes to having their voices heard at the ballot box. But, repealing these restrictive provisions would be a significant step forward in protecting trans voters and ensuring they are not subject to unconstitutional discrimination when casting their votes. Reforms like this will take significant federal and state-level legislative action — so in the meantime, it’s important folks know their rights. 

In 2020, The National Center for Transgender Equality released a “Voting While Trans” guide that can help voters understand their rights at the ballot box and recognize when abridgment of their right to vote is illegal. These resources include information on ID alternatives to bring to the polls, what to do if a poll worker questions your voting eligibility, and a one-pager that you can bring on the go as you head to your polling place. Read more and download the Center’s one-pager here. 

Transgender Americans face unique barriers when attempting to exercise their right to vote — and elected officials who claim to be allies of the LGBTQ+ community should immediately work to amend voter ID requirements and make obtaining an accurate ID less costly and strenuous for their trans constituents. Additionally, there are ways that states can work to address these barriers right now, like training poll workers to correctly assist trans voters and respect their rights.

Addressing the barriers to voting faced by trans Americans will take a multi-pronged effort, but it is one that is desperately needed in order to achieve equal access to the ballot box. 

Looking for more information? This guide from the ACLU and this voting rights resource page from the National Center for Transgender Equality are great places to start.