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When IDs don't match: How new voter ID laws affect the transgender community

When UNC junior Giulia Curcelli bought alcohol at Harris Teeter a few months ago, they presented their ID like anyone else — but then came the questioning.

Curcelli, who identifies as non-binary and genderqueer, said they had to talk to a manager about why their photo didn’t match how they looked. They said while this was a fairly trivial instance, ID laws could present potential problems for non-binary people — such as the newly enacted North Carolina Voter ID law.

“I think that queer and trans people are already policed so much about their gender presentation,” they said. “I think that every time you show your ID, there’s always a possibility of that happening again.”

The ID

According to the state law that was enacted in 2016, voters must present a photo ID when showing up to vote, which could include a no-fee voter ID card for those who do not already have an acceptable ID. 

Jen Jones, a spokesperson for Democracy North Carolina, said transgender voters often face obstacles when registering to vote. She said there are many different sections they will need to fill out on voter registration forms, including the optional gender identity section.

“(It’s) still important, too, when you’re facing tremendous obstacles at the polls, and you will have people looking at your ID as a gateway to having your ballot count or not,” Jones said. “So it’s incredibly important for transgender people to register, re-register and make sure their voices are heard by having their ID match their gender identity.”

Marge Howell, spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, said in an email that transgender residents who apply for a driver’s license or voter ID card are required by law to provide a physician’s verification that sex change surgery has been completed. If there has been no sex change operation, the resident should indicate their biological sex on the ID application.

Gerry Cohen, former special counsel of the N.C. General Assembly, said although it’s possible for people to get a new picture at the DMV, it can be a hassle.

“You know, going to the DMV and paying $13, I’m not sure if it’s right ahead or just behind getting a root canal,” Cohen said. “There shouldn’t be any kind of requirement that somebody should have to go out and have a new picture just because they’ve grown a beard or have a different gender identification.”

The voting process

Ted Fitzgerald, lead voter outreach specialist of the N.C. State Board of Elections, said the election official at the polls will look at two things when presented with an ID: whether the name matches or is “substantially similar” to the poll book, and whether the photo on the ID bears a “reasonable resemblance” to the voter.

If the determination can’t be made, the voter will be directed to a help desk, where three poll judges — chosen by the parties — will talk to the voter, gather any more information from them and then decide if the voter can go through normally. All three judges have to unanimously agree that there is no reasonable resemblance depicted in order for the voter to be given a provisional ballot — a circumstance that only occurred 13 times in this year’s state primaries.

Cohen said the reasonable resemblance provision in the law is unique from other states with voter ID laws. He said if there is any doubt, it must be construed in the favor of the voter.

“Of the states that have photo ID, North Carolina has gone well beyond the norm to accommodate — I don’t think the intent was to accommodate transgender, but to note that, you know, you look different as time goes on,” Cohen said.

Possible effects

Curcelli said although they can’t vote in North Carolina, they could see how it could be problematic for minorities like transgender people.

“I could imagine, depending on the situation, if outing yourself becomes a safety threat, I could see just not wanting to show ID altogether,” Curcelli said. “Personally, I feel safe enough, and I think that voting and having my voice heard is important — but I also am not in a situation where I would have to show an ID to vote.”

“What I can say with certainty is that no transgendered person is going to be denied the right to vote, or told that they can’t vote because they are transgendered, or because of photo ID,” he said.

But Jones said even with the reasonable resemblance requirement, a misinformed poll worker who doesn’t hold the ID of a voter in the most favorable light could cause problems for a non-binary voter, even if the voter has followed all the necessary procedures.

“It’s one of those laws that, whether it’s directly or indirectly, or intended or unintended, impacts the transgender community,” she said. “So, like we’re seeing with House Bill 2, obviously if you pass a law that targets a specific group, they will be impacted, and it will be a deterrent to — like using a bathroom — going to the polls.”

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Jones said it’s still too early to tell how much and which marginalized groups were affected by the new law in the primaries, but it could be a form of disenfranchisement for the LGBTQ community.

“We do see it as a problem, and we also see it as a deterrent and another way the North Carolina General Assembly has, on the one hand, come for some of us, but impacted all of us,” she said.