GOP attacks on mail-in ballots could hurt transgender voters

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Republicans have pushed back against easing voting restrictions that would help more trans people vote.

Republican attacks on mail-in ballots could have an unseen victim if the party gets its way: transgender people's voting rights.

Democrats have supported funding initiatives in recent weeks to expand voting opportunities, including voting by mail, in an attempt to make casting a ballot easier and safer during the pandemic.

The GOP has been on the offensive against those efforts.

Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, claimed without proof on Fox Business that Democrats "want to take away the safeguards that ensure the integrity of the election process" and wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News that "mail-in voting increases the opportunity for fraud."

Republican Sen. John Cornyn (TX) claimed that Democrats' interest in expanding mail-in voting was an attempt to get the federal government to "take over" elections and argued that if voters "can go to the grocery store they can go to the polls."

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) suggested there was potential for widespread fraud if Americans were given the opportunity to vote by mail.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed including more funding for mail-in and absentee voting for the next stimulus package, intended to blunt the economic effects of the outbreak. In late March, 51 state Democratic Party chairpersons co-signed an open letter telling Congress to appropriate at least $2 billion to states for extended early voting, a universal and easily accessible vote-by-mail system, and voter outreach and education, among other efforts.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the push a "distraction" from other COVID-19 concerns and accused Democrats of attempting to "force partisan objectives" into stimulus measures.

"That’s disgusting to me. … Stop worrying about politics. Worry about what’s in front of us. And that's the health of the nation … and our economy," he said during a media call.

Donald Trump himself has repeatedly attacked vote-by-mail efforts spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, calling them both "corrupt" and "dangerous" during a White House briefing last week, despite expert advice recommending election officials implement such protocols as a safety measure.

Trump later tweeted that Republicans should "fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting." He claimed that there was on "tremendous potential" for voter fraud and that mail-in voting "doesn't work out well for Republicans."

Many transgender people lean toward the Democratic Party or identify as Democrats. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality's 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, 50% of respondents who were asked which party they identified with identified as Democrats. Forty-eight percent identified as Independents, and 2% as Republicans. Of those who identified as Independents, 79% said they lean more toward the Democratic Party.

How vote-by-mail benefits transgender people

In reality, expanding voting options would only ensure that more people could cast their ballot, including those in the most marginalized groups.

Research on voting barriers for trans people shows that mail-in voting would particularly benefit them because it would eliminate one hurdle to casting a ballot: voter ID laws.

In February, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, a public policy research institute, released a report on the potential impact of voter identification laws in the 2020 general election. The report found that, although 965,350 transgender adults are eligible to vote, 892,400 reside in 45 states where elections are not conducted entirely by mail — and 42% of voting-eligible people in those states do not have identification with their accurate gender and name.

"Mail-in voting would be the best solution for trans people who do not have IDs that accurately reflect their correct name and gender. Expansion of mail-in voting would certainly benefit the trans community," Jody Herman, scholar and Reid Rasmussen Public Policy Fellow at the Williams Institute, said in an email.

Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director for policy and action at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said separately that voter ID laws are a huge hindrance for transgender people because changing one's name and gender marker on identification it is costly and time-consuming process.

Heng-Lehtinen, a transgender man, said that the court process for changing his name required him to spend $450 in court fees, before paying for additional fees beyond that.  

Although California no longer requires people pay that $450 fee, many states still require trans people to spend hundreds of dollars to change their identification, he said. In addition, multiple states have surgical requirements for trans people to change their identification, which is harmful to trans people who don't want a particular surgery or couldn't afford it if they did.

This means that, for a lot of trans people, updating their name is out of reach — and any time trans people go to the polls and show ID, it can open them up to harassment.

"If you cant update your ID and you are forced to show it you are outed as transgender, you're vulnerable to discrimination, it's such a scary moment to then have that happen when you go to vote [and is] so toxic for our democracy," Heng-Lehtinen said. "As a rule, democracy requires voting to be easy. We all win when voting is easy and accessible."

The reality

The Brennan Center for Justice recently advocated a widely available vote-by-mail system in the United States to protect people from catching the virus. Myrna Perez, director of the center's voting rights and elections program, said that vote-by-mail can be done with important security measures in place, and that a number of states already have these measures. In the middle of a pandemic, she said, voters, especially marginalized ones, have a special need for more voting options.

Officials need to "take a hard look" at vote-by-mail processes to make sure they are modified consistent with the crisis people are facing, she added.

"Requiring people to include photo IDs when driver's license offices issuing them are closed or people don't have access to copy machines is not practical. We're asking for common sense modifications that would work for people in the crisis that we’re in," she said.

Voting by mail exclusively might put up some barriers for marginalized groups, however.

The Brennan Center is not calling for exclusive vote by mail, Perez cautioned, saying there still need to be in-person options because some people have unreliable mail, including on Native American reservations.

Other voters may need the assistance that polling locations have to offer, such as machines designed for people with disabilities or a polling place has requirements for poll workers to be bilingual.

But ensuring that people have in-mail voting at least as a standard option would help many people already targeted by voter ID laws, Heng-Lehtinen said.

"For these voter ID laws, transgender people are not the intended target, but we are collateral damage," he said.

The future of widespread, standardized vote-by-mail options is currently up in the air. A number of states have tried it for this cycle and others are pushing for it to at least be a more available option, with more opportunities to request absentee ballots.

And although Republican pushback against those decisions so far has been fierce, Democrats may have a few conservative allies in the fight.

Ohio's Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told a Dayton Daily News reporter on Sunday that he was not concerned about fraud through mail-in voting.

"I can tell you that's not the case in Ohio," he said. "As I've said, we're fortunate that we've been doing vote by mail for a long time. We know how to do it, and we know how to get it done securely."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.