Jordan Hanson remembers the excitement of being able to vote for the first time in 2008. But that was before she was living as a woman, instead of a man. Six years later, she was afraid to even go to the polls.
Election ID laws pose unique challenges to transgender voters who might not have IDs that reflect their gender or name.
In early 2014, Hanson began living as a transgender woman. But the difficulties that would end up keeping her from voting later that year began when she tried to change the gender on her Kansas driver’s license.
She went to a Division of Vehicles office in Lawrence, where she lived at the time. She provided the required note from her doctor saying she had medically completed her gender transition. But staff addressed her as “sir” and “mister,” even though she was dressed as a woman.
She made multiple calls and visits to the office. Staff members cracked jokes and refused to acknowledge her as a woman throughout the process, she said. In the end, officials denied her a new license, saying the documentation she provided was not sufficient to prove that she was the same person as the man shown on her driver’s license.
The thought of facing similar reactions at her polling place was too much for her.
“I was at the breaking point in my life,” Hanson said. “I care a lot about politics, so to feel forced away from that was defeating.”
Transgender rights advocates worry that those who face similar experiences might not be able to vote, or, like Hanson, be too afraid to vote.
An estimated 112,000 transgender people who are eligible to vote live in states that require voters to show government-issued photo identification when they go to the polls, according to a recent study from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
The study also estimated that as many as 30 percent of transgender people who are eligible to vote in those states do not have identification that accurately reflects their gender.
But changing names and genders on IDs can be a lengthy, expensive and complicated process.
Twelve states require proof of surgery, an amended birth certificate or a court order to change gender on driver’s licenses. Most transgender people don’t undergo surgery.
“Gender transition looks different for every person,” said Arli Christian, an attorney with the National Center for Transgender Equality. “For many, surgery could be prohibitive because of extraordinary costs, medical or personal reasons. Regardless, information about surgery is private medical information that is no business of the state.”
Some states, such as Kansas, have stopped amending gender on birth certificates. Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials say they don’t have authority to make gender changes to birth certificates for transgender people.
Stephanie Mott, a psychotherapist and human rights activist in Topeka spent more than two years updating her official documents after she started living as a transgender woman.
She changed her passport and driver’s license, but the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied Mott’s request to amend her birth certificate. She is now suing the state for denying her rights. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 16.
Mott also said the process was costly because of the administrative and medical fees she had to pay.
While she still was updating her paperwork, Mott went to vote in the 2008 election. A poll worker pressed her on why she was calling herself Steven when she was dressed as a woman.
“I had to out myself as a transgender woman to him, and that was dangerous,” Mott said. She feared that if people around her realized she was transgender, she would be harassed or attacked.
That fear is not unfounded. An often-cited 2011 survey conducted by National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force found that 15 percent of transgender survey respondents said they had been asked to leave an establishment (voting or otherwise) when the gender on their ID did not match their appearance. More than 40 percent said they had been harassed in similar situations, and 3 percent said they had been assaulted. A new report is due for release later this year.
Mott was allowed to vote, but not everyone is as successful.
“The mere prospect and likelihood that a transgender person will have to explain their gender identity to poll workers will keep some from voting,” said Liz Kennedy, director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress.
No rule requires that the gender on a person’s ID match the gender of the person voting. Even in states with strict voter ID requirements, a voter cannot be turned away as long as the name on the voter’s ID matches the name on the voter roll.
But poll workers might not know that voters’ genders don’t need to match their IDs, Kennedy said. “It’s unlikely that polling places are training their workers on handling transgender ballots and ID issues.”
The National Center for Transgender Equality has published a checklist for voter ID laws, along with a list of required documentation. The national nonpartisan group Election Protection is operating a hotline voters who encounter problems at the polls.
After multiple failed attempts to update her driver’s license in Kansas, Jordan Hanson moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 2015. She updated her ID there and plans to vote Tuesday.