Today is Election Day in Canada, and I LOVE AN ELECTION, YA’LL. I went to the polls bright and early, and the process was easy-peasy. I didn’t even have to wait in line.
But then, as a white, middle-class Canadian woman, I’m speaking from a place of privilege. I know that for many Canadians, exercising their democratic duty today will not be so easy. Especially if those Canadians are like Damien Leggett or Kinnon MacKinnon, just two of the many trans folks across the country who received a voter information card bearing their birth name.
Leggett, a 36-year-old Winnipeg resident, was confused when he received his card; he legally changed his name in 2007 and has filed taxes under his correct name. But more than that, he felt embarrassed and angry.
“My children don’t know me by that name anymore. No one calls me by that name. I live with a roommate, so I hid it right away,” he tells me.
MacKinnon, a 30-year-old Toronto resident, echoes similar feelings. “I felt a little bit confused and frustrated,” he says. “I’ve already given lot of resources in terms of time and money to change my name legally. To have that not reflected on my voter card is frustrating.”
Sure, erroneous voter cards aren’t a new problem. It was recently reported that residents of a seniors complex in Halifax were directed to a polling station on a different street even though there will be one in their building. Women who have changed their last names after marriage have also received cards bearing their former name. Just to name a few.
But for trans people, this is more than an inconvenience. The implications can be very, very serious. “If you’re turning up to the poll with a gendered name that doesn’t represent who you are, you’re subject to increased scrutiny and humiliation because a lot of poll attendants aren’t actually trained or sensitive to this issue,” MacKinnon says.
MacKinnon cast a ballot over the Thanksgiving weekend during advance polling. IT WASN’T GREAT. He says that his birth name was met with laughter by a poll clerk — “my interpretation was that it was out of confusion and discomfort,” he says — and that he had to take an oath swearing he was who he said he was. Taking an oath is not an uncommon practice at polling stations for those who don’t have proper ID, but it has the potential to call unwanted attention to trans people, especially those who aren’t out.
This issue has come up across the country It was reported this week that the Trans Equality Society of Alberta had been contacted by 35 transgender people also saying their birth names were on their voter cards. When MacKinnon posted on Facebook about his polling experience over the weekend, he heard similar stories from 13 of his friends from across Canada.
One said receiving the card made her not want to vote. Leggett had a similar reaction. That is a real shame.
“It’s anxiety provoking — and trans people already live with a lot of anxiety,” Leggett points out. Indeed, trans people face overt transphobia and violence for simply living as who they are, but they also deal with insidious, day-to-day forms discrimination — such as being chronically misgendered or having to field invasive questions from strangers.
So why is this happening?
Here’s a possible explanation: Voter lists and information cards are generated using information from the National Register of Electors — a permanent database of electors. It’s updated using information from a variety of sources, including the Canada Revenue Agency, Citizenship and Immigration, and provincial and territorial vital statistics agencies.
But here’s the thing: Elections Canada does not update GIVEN NAMES using information collected from these data sources. That means even if you’ve, say, filed taxes under your preferred name, your name will not be updated in the Register. Transgender electors must update their registration at their polling station on election day, or contact Elections Canada directly to notify it of a name change.
Poll workers are also expected to be respectful and welcoming to ALL voters — but clearly, some added training might be necessary when it comes to interacting with trans people. MacKinnon hopes poll attendants will be sensitive to this issue today and act discreetly when interacting with trans people. “And to expect it to happen and to not be surprised,” he adds.
An FAQ for transgender voters has been added to the Elections Canada website. As well, Elections Canada has worked in consultation with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and advocacy groups to developed an information sheet for transgender voters. That’s a start.
But this shouldn’t be YET ANOTHER THING for trans folks to have to deal with. Because this is about more than a name. This is about people’s identities. Elections Canada would do well to consider the ways in which their data-gathering process may be failing some of our most marginalized citizens.
Especially if the agency believes, as is stated on its website, that “an accurate list of electors is the cornerstone of any democracy.”