Like many others, Adria Berryhill’s gameplan for Election Day has been abruptly shaken up by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the possibility of exposure to the virus is not all that she’s worried about.
“I want to avoid showing my ID,” she said.
As a transgender woman, the prospect of presenting photo identification that doesn’t align with her identity is a daunting task. In Missouri, voters are required to show state-issued ID at the polls. Accepted forms of ID do not have to have a photograph. In Kansas, voters are required to present photo identification at the polls, with acceptable documents ranging from a driver’s license to a concealed-carry license.
Still, in both states, legal name changes and gender marker alterations can be long, tedious and costly processes, discouraging many trans and nonbinary voters from casting a ballot and barring the most financially disadvantaged from participating in elections altogether.
‘Will I ever be recognized for the person that I am?’
A resident of Kansas City, Missouri, Berryhill has voted before using a driver’s license that is not updated to match her identity.
“My driver’s license has somebody on it who I don’t recognize,” she said.
Berryhill is among an estimated 965,350 transgender adults will be eligible to vote in this year’s general election, according to the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute. Of these eligible voters, 892,400 live in the 45 states — including Kansas and Missouri — where elections are not conducted entirely by mail.
Approximately 42% of the eligible voting transgender population in those 45 states do not have “identification documents that reflect their correct name and/or gender,” according to the UCLA report.
“When people look at that picture, sometimes I get double-takes and it’s so embarrassing,” Berryhill said.
In the past, she’s made a point to announce her trans identity to avoid being confronted for her difference in appearance. Having to present deadnames — the name someone no longer associates with — and old photographs can be a mentally taxing experience.
“It really triggers my anxiety,” said Kelly Nou, a transgender woman from Kansas City, Missouri. “Who wants to face that every time they present their ID?”
Photo ID laws also “increase the likelihood that transgender voters may encounter confusion, bias, and discrimination because of scrutiny of their ID documents and gender at the polling place,” according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“It creates a feeling of hopelessness and frustration,” said Caroline Gibbs, founder and director of The Transgender Institute, a therapy center based in Kansas City, Missouri. “Like, ‘Are things ever going to be different for me? Will I ever be recognized for the person that I am?’”
Nearly one-third of people who have shown an ID — both during and outside of elections — that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality.
In states with strict photo ID laws, if a poll worker suspects any discrepancies with a voter’s identification, the voter may be issued a provisional ballot, requiring them to prove their identity at an election office in order for their vote to be counted. However, provisional ballots are not guaranteed to count.
“I purposely try to boy it up, look less like a woman, which I don’t want to do,” Berryhill said.
‘It’s just not an easy process’
For trans and nonbinary voters, obtaining the correct documentation is no easy feat. Nonbinary voters do not have the option of correcting their gender markers, as gender options are limited to male or female on both Kansas and Missouri voter registration forms.
“It’s an old antiquated law and it needs to be changed,” Gibbs said. “It makes life more difficult for trans women and trans men.”
Two years ago, Jessica Mason was able to change her name and the gender on her birth certificate after a long and tedious process with the Kansas court system, which requires applicants to complete a civil cover sheet providing information about the case, file a petition and provide signatures by physicians or therapists.
“There is definitely a barrier to entry,” said Mason, who ended her search for an attorney to help her through the process when she was quoted for $2,500 and decided to do it herself. “The process is intimidating, it’s nerve wracking and it takes time,” she said. “Some people pay attorneys to do it because they don’t want to deal with it.”
Many trans individuals are confronted with financial barriers stemming from high rates of poverty, unemployment and discrimination that may bar them from securing new identification, or any identification at all. In 2015, nearly one-third of transgender people lived in poverty — more than twice the U.S. national rate, according to the U.S. Transgender Survey.
Court costs and filing fees are additional expenditures that can make obtaining correct documentation financially inaccessible.
“A person that is privileged has access to resources, but a lot of us wouldn’t get that assistance,” Nou said.
After years of apprehension, Nou was able to change the gender on her license five years ago with the help of the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit LGBTQ organization.
“Without organizations that are trying to help us, we are on our own,” she said.
While Kansas has a strict policy on photo IDs, “registered voters who do not have an approved government-issued photo ID and would like one to vote may apply for a free nondriver identification card,” according to the Kansas secretary of state. Yet this solution still does not account for the most socioeconomically disenfranchised.
“On paper it’s free, but you have to have some underlying forms of identification that can be cost prohibitive,” said Lauren Bonds, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
“Even though there’s not necessarily a cost associated with getting an ID, there’s still a cost associated with becoming eligible to get such an ID through other forms.”
‘You shouldn’t even need to present an ID to begin with’
The necessity of identification is often called into question by voting rights activists and other disenfranchised individuals. The threat of voter fraud, which some conservative politicians often push as a prominent issue, only occurs at most 0.0025% of the time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Over 21 million U.S. citizens lack government-issued photo identification according to the ACLU. ID laws have reduced voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points, which translates to thousands of votes that can be lost in just one state, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
“Voter registration is actually a suppression tactic because they make you prove certain things that really everybody should have access to,” said Jay-Marie Hill, the transgender education and advocacy program coordinator at the ACLU of Missouri.
“You shouldn’t even need to present an ID to begin with,” Berryhill said. “Everybody should be registered to vote automatically.”
Voter identification laws in Missouri, where Berryhill resides, loosened after a January ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court that deemed photo ID requirements to be unconstitutional. Now, utility bills, bank statements and other government documents can be used at the polls.
Several states are tackling the inequities in receiving proper identification for nonbinary people. In 2019, the Maryland State Board of Elections added “X” as a nonbinary option for voter registration cards. In Colorado, voters can update their gender identity for their voter registration anytime, regardless of whether it has been updated on legal documents. Forms have the options of male, female or other.
Conversations around adding a third gender option for voter registration is not something that Hill sees happening in Missouri.
“Missouri is pretty far behind when it comes to some of the more recent and freeing designations that some other states have found a way to coalesce around,” Hill said.
Bonds agrees and sees the same problems for Kansas.
For 2020, as photo ID will still be required in Kansas and government-issued ID in Missouri, many voting rights advocates are focusing their efforts on guiding trans voters through the election.
“It’s very important to make a plan,” Hill said. “You need to be a registered voter and you need to register with your legal name.”
They also encourage trans voters to go with a friend.
“It really just helps to have somebody there with you who can vouch for you and keep the situation de-escalated,” they said. “We can create a community experience about voting.”
And as the threat of discrimination is still looming for trans and nonbinary voters, it is importatnt to prepare for unfavorable scenarios. If someone is administered a provisional ballot or feels as though they are enduring discrimination, “find a way to note your experience and take notes,” Hill said.
Complaints can be made to the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition at 866-OUR-VOTE.
“There’s so much riding on every election, but the more we can make this something that we are doing together, we can handle our business, take care of each other and keep it pushing,” Hill said.
“This cannot just be about checking the box in the booth. It has to be about a larger commitment to each other.”
Mili Mansaray is a former reporting intern with The Beacon.
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