What the Voter ID Law Really Means for Women in Texas

Varying maiden and marriage names on crucial documents, and documents showing genders different to that presented, could cause problems for many voters at the polls

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In Texas, where early voting for the Nov. 5 elections started on Monday, the state’s controversial photo ID law is being enforced for the first time as citizens cast their ballots. In 2012, the Department of Justice found that the law discriminated against minorities and low-income voters in the state — now there’s  growing concern that it places an unnecessary burden on women. Name changes that may have come as a result of marriage or divorce, reports say, may cause problems at the polls.

On Tuesday, a local television station ran a story about a judge who faced an issue at the voting booth. “What I have used for voter registration and for identification for the last 52 years was not sufficient yesterday when I went to vote,” 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts told Kiii News of South Texas. She had to sign an affidavit affirming her identity in order to vote because the last name on her voter registration card, her maiden name, didn’t match the last name on her license. “This is the first time I have ever had a problem voting,” she said.

State officials say the issue, however, may not cause as many problems as the reports suggest. “We want to be very careful not to cause false alarm,” Alicia Pierce, a spokesperson for the Texas Secretary of State’s office, told TIME. “We’ve worked very closely with poll workers to create the right forms and the right training to make sure this isn’t an issue at the polls.”

Though the law requires that names on both the identification card and the voter registration card be “substantially similar,” if a person’s name doesn’t match exactly they will still have an opportunity to vote. In that case, voters are required to sign an affidavit affirming they are who they claim, which is then noted in the poll book.

A “substantially similar” name, Pierce says, could include a nickname, a maiden name, and or suffix such as “junior.” If the poll worker finds that the name is dissimilar, a voter can file a provisional ballot and present updated information within six days of the election.

“In a perfect world, you would update your voter registration card regularly to match any identification that you plan to use,” Pierce said.

However, Linda Krefting, the President of the League of Women Voters of Texas says they would rather the voter ID law had not been passed in the first place. “We would rather have ended at preclearance,” Krefting told TIME.  “But, since it is the law, the rights of voters are best protected if people understand what the law requires, what photo IDs are acceptable, and how to get them.”

There are seven acceptable forms of identification accepted in Texas, including a state-issued driver’s license, handgun license or identification card, military ID cards, citizenship cards, passports, and the Texas Election Identification Certificate, a free ID card distributed by the Department of Public Safety that can be used to vote.

The state has implemented extended hours and deployed mobile units to make getting election ID easier.  Yet, as of last week, just  41 people across the state had been issued with the cards, the Dallas Morning News reports. An estimated 1.4 million eligible voters in the state do not have the proper IDs to vote.

Voters could run into difficulties if they try to obtain the necessary cards and can’t produce documents with their current name — a problem that may not be confined to the Lone Star State. There is a significant gap in the possession of documents proving citizenship between men and women, with only 66% of women reporting that they have the documents on hand with their current name, according to a 2006 survey sponsored by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Documents include birth certificates, passports, and citizenship papers.

“The real issues would not be going on at the polls,” Krefting said.

In Pennsylvania, where a strict photo ID law was passed but had not been implemented, a woman joined the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the state for that very reason. Joyce Block, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s website, had never driven and didn’t have a state-issued ID, but when she went to get an ID in 2012 she was told she couldn’t because her birth certificate and her Social Security card were in her maiden name. The only official document she had with her married name on it was her ketubah, the marriage certificate she had received during her traditional Jewish wedding ceremony.  Because it was written in Hebrew, a DMV official couldn’t verify it.

In 2011, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that an elderly woman was denied a photo ID card for the same reason; though she presented a birth certificate, a rent receipt, a voter registration card, and a copy of her lease, she was denied a photo voter card because the names didn’t match up. The woman, officials said, should have presented a marriage certificate.

“A full 34% of women don’t have documents proving citizenship with their current name on it,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center told TIME. “Why do we have such strict limitations on what kinds of documents people can have when they need to vote?”

Transgender men and women, on the other hand, may face even tougher battles. According to the Williams Institute at the University of California School of Law, 29% of transgender men and women in states where strict photo ID laws are in place do not have IDs that reflect the gender they present. In Texas, 27% of the transgender population does not have accurate identification.

Katy Stewart, the executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told TIME that though she’s concerned that fear of what happens when trans people hit the polls will discourage voting, she’s encouraging people to double check their information and vote early to avoid problems. “This voter ID was defeated and it has come back, it feels like we’re getting beat up again,” Stewart said. “But it looks like its something that’s going to stay, so what we’re going to have to do is prepare people to get past that fear and have what they need to vote.”