Imagine it's Election Day and you walk into your local polling station. Before you can get a ballot, a poll worker demands a photo ID. Luckily, you have one and remembered to bring it. You hand over a state ID, but the poll worker looks confused. The poll worker says the photo and stated gender on the ID does not match your appearance. Suddenly, a complete stranger is asking you questions about very personal aspects of your life.
Perhaps you are asked to sign an affidavit and only given a provisional ballot, or worse - you are turned away or become frustrated and leave without voting at all. This is what advocates fear could happen to thousands of transgender and gender non-conforming voters in states across the country due to controversial voter ID laws.
Under the guise of curbing the already rare occurrence of voter fraud, Republican lawmakers in several states have passed new laws requiring voters to produce a form of photo or government identification in order to vote. Many observers, including the Justice Department, say the laws do little to prevent fraud and would simply disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
In April, the Williams Institute estimated that 25,000 transgender voters living in states with strict voter ID laws would be unable to vote in upcoming elections. This number is a bit out of date because legal challenges have since postponed or overturned voter ID laws in states such as South Carolina and Pennsylvania, but thousands of trans and gender non-conforming citizens are still at risk.
"New voter ID laws have created costly barriers to voting for many trans people. And much worse, the debate about voter ID laws has made even the idea of voting harder, so many of us may feel discouraged from even trying to vote on election day," said Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
Obtaining a photo ID can by costly and time consuming, and many trans people are already struggling to obtain updated ID's that reflect their true identity. This is nothing new, but voter ID laws bring discrimination to the ballot booth. According to the NCTE, voter ID laws erect barriers for anyone who has trouble obtaining an ID.
"Voter ID laws are dangerous. State legislatures have enacted them attempting to solve a fake problem," said Keisling. "And as a result, transgender people - like students, veterans, low-income people of color, and older Americans - risk being denied ballots this year."
Voter ID laws also increase the likelihood that trans and gender non-conforming voters will encounter bias, confusion and discrimination as poll workers scrutinize their ID's, according to the NCTE.
In several states, ID's are requested but not required, which could also lead to confusion and discrimination.
"Our message is, don't let them scare you into giving up your vote," Keisling said.
If you are trans or gender-nonconforming, it's important to know your voting rights. The NCTE warns that, even if you have never had a problem voting in the past, you may encounter problems this year. If you are a poll worker or an ally who supports trans peoples' rights, it's important to know how to support your fellow voters. The NCTE has launched a video campaign to spread the word. The entire series and additional information is available at www.votingwhiletrans.org.
The NCTE recommends getting a photo ID if you don't already have one. If possible and necessary, update the gender status on your photo ID. Also, remember to register to vote and verify registration information such as your address. If you have questions, call your local election office.
If for any reason you are told that you cannot vote on Election Day, call the Nationwide Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE for help.