Pennsylvania’s controversial Act 18, otherwise known as the “voter-ID law,” has been in the news for months now. In a nutshell, Act 18 amended Pennsylvania’s voting rules to require individuals to bring state-issued photo identification with an expiration date to their polling place in order to cast a vote in the Nov. 6 general election. The law disparately impacted the elderly, low-income and those without a high-school degree — populations, minority members in particular, that were least likely to possess the required identification.
In effect, the law seemed likely to prevent an estimated 1-9 percent of voters from participating in the electoral process.
Thankfully, a Pennsylvania judge recently struck down the strict photo requirement for this coming election. But, there is still concern that confusion could occur at the polls as, according to Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, poll workers may still ask voters for photo IDs. The request itself might lead voters or poll operators to think a particular voter cannot vote, when really, they are only barred from utilizing the provisional ballot. Voters without photo ID should use the regular voting machine instead.
Another new change to voter-ID policy is poised to cause potential snags for voters. In a victory for the transgender community, the Department of State’s voter IDs, issued through the Department of Transportation, no longer bear gender markers. The decision, made at the end of September, was thanks in large part to transgender advocacy groups and signaled the first time that Pennsylvania has allowed state-issued identification without a gender marker. This will clearly make it easier for transgender individuals to obtain and use IDs that do not impugn their identities. However, interpretation of the IDs — if requested now or when the photo-ID portion of the law could go into full effect next year — will be at the discretion of poll workers.
For example, if a male-to-female transgender voter attempts to vote with an ID bearing a female name, that voter could potentially run into issues if the poll worker decides the voter does not “match” his or her ID. Still, the chance of this issue arising is worth the precedent that seems to clarify the unimportance of gender in determining a voter’s right to participate in the electoral process. Additionally, in contrast with the mandated photo ID, it’s also a much better alternative. A transgender individual having a photo that conflicts with his or her current gender presentation or name would surely have posed a much greater risk to the voting rights and safety of transgender Pennsylvanians. Further, there may be a hidden bonus to the voter-ID gender-drop: The decision could possibly be interpreted liberally enough to provide for freedoms in other areas of law, or with respect to other required identifications.
In Philadelphia in particular, there has been much attention paid to the required gender markers on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority weekly and monthly transpasses. Riders who do not appear to match their designated gender sticker have been harassed by drivers, outed as transgender to other riders and even had legitimate passes confiscated. This punitive conduct not only inhibited transgender individuals’ equal access to SEPTA, but also threatened their general safety. However, in April, Riders Against Gender Exclusion were successful in convincing SEPTA to stop putting gender stickers on transpasses. The policy will begin to be rolled out in mid-2013.
While transgender voters wait for the SEPTA gender-marker changes to take effect, they will not find it difficult to obtain the new genderless state-issued voter IDs discussed above. According to PennDOT secretary Kurt Meyers, there will be “liberal access” to the IDs in an effort to ensure total voter enfranchisement. If any Pennsylvania citizen does not have a valid photo ID on hand, he or she can now go to the agency to obtain a voter ID. Further, they may request that the ID display their preferred name and lack any declaration of gender. While it may seem like a small victory, there is nothing more American, especially around election time, than assisting our citizens in exercising their constitutional rights. Suffrage has a long history in America, as do our transgender Americans. It’s well past time that Pennsylvania recognizes that.