Despite legal change, transgender Canadians still seeing ‘deadnames’ on voter cards

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Like many Canadians, Kate Madden received a voter card in the mail earlier this month, but it wasn’t addressed to her.

“It had my deadname on it,” she said. “I’ve legally had my name changed for the last 14 months.”

Madden is among a number of transgender and non-binary Canadians who say they were blindsided by voter cards addressed to their “deadnames” — the birth name of someone who has changed it. She posted about her experience on Twitter, joining a number of other voices telling similar stories. Many of them questioned why, after all the legwork required to legalize a new name, the change hasn’t been reflected.

The voter card came as a surprise to Madden. Over the past two years, she’s jumped through bureaucratic hoops to have her name change reflected on every official document.

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“I’ve filed my taxes under this name, I’ve got a passport. My birth certificate is corrected, my driver’s licence, Alberta health card,” the 42-year-old told Global News. “I even voted in the Alberta provincial election in May with no issues. The voter ID card came with my correct name and everything.”

Kate Madden stands outside her polling station after voting. Provided to Global News

When Madden decided to vote in advance polling, she didn’t bring the card since it didn’t match any of her government-approved IDs. The poll station workers were respectful, Madden said, and she had no problem casting her vote, but the experience was agitating.

“I needed to disclose the fact that I’m trans and declare my gender in the middle of a gymnasium with people around. It was awkward and uncomfortable,” Madden said.

“It wasn’t hugely inconvenient, but what I’ve learned over the last two years since coming out is that a lot of trans folks in the community would struggle with that and could potentially be triggered by that.”

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Elections Canada has a section on its website for transgender voters. It says voters who have changed their names and informed several agencies will have their information “updated automatically,” but the data it uses to generate elector profiles comes from multiple sources.

That’s where things can get tangled, says Elections Canada spokesperson Natasha Gauthier.

The national registry pools data from driver’s licences, tax information and provincial voting records, but it isn’t totally reliable. Gauthier said it can provide “conflicting, dated or incorrect information.”

If there are errors, Elections Canada can’t validate what was changed.

“Generally speaking, if there’s a discrepancy in any of our records of their information, we can’t go ahead and change it without them contacting us directly,” she said.

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Devon Noir, a 26-year-old Edmonton resident, received an incorrect voter card this October despite having officially changed their name more than five years ago.

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“I’m trans so part of it was to get a name that suited my life better, but I’m also a survivor of incredible abuse, which I had to change my name and move to escape,” Noir told Global News. “Seeing my old name … it instantly made me feel very unsafe.”

Noir received voter cards for both the Alberta election and the 2015 federal election with the correct names. This time, the card arrived not only with the deadname but the wrong address.

Finn Lucullan, 26, had the same issue. Elections Canada told Lucullan it seldom changes the name field.

“Still doesn’t account for my last federal vote,” Lucullan said. “I’ve done everything necessary, but this name follows me nonetheless, and every contact with those in power is the same polite, delaying handwave.”

Noir expressed similar frustration.

“You would think that the government would have it together by now, considering I’ve changed it legally on every possible document. It speaks to incompetence at a high level.”

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Shortcomings in the way Elections Canada aggregates information is what leads to deadnaming, said Morgane Oger, LGBTQ2 activist and vice-president of the British Columbia NDP.

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In 2015, acting on personal experience and complaints from people in the community, Oger pushed Elections Canada officials for answers.

She received two voter cards in the lead-up to that election: one with her current name and one with her deadname.

Oger blames a gap in data for the double-up. It essentially splits one identity in two, she said, leaving Elections Canada with no way of knowing whether one was merely the wife or child of the other, for example. She is doubtful, however, that newlyweds with changed maiden names are facing the same obstacle.

“When a transgender person changes their foundational document, there is no evidence of this that isn’t private,” Oger said.

“There’s a data break … a history break for people who are trans. There’s no record of change. It’s just like, suddenly, one of these records appeared, and there could be all kinds of reasons why this record appeared.”

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Elections Canada acknowledges that two records can exist for one voter. The system doesn’t override a previous record when a person updates their information online by registering under their new name, it says.

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“They don’t correlate to social insurance numbers because it’s private or to things that would make them realize, ‘Hey, that’s the same person,’” Oger said.

“What’s more difficult to explain is why old data reappears.”

Since Elections Canada can’t validate changes, it’s up to the voter to make sure their name is correct.

Oger said putting the onus on voters to prevent the discrepancy is “ridiculous.”

“I think they could do better. The problem is really simple — it’s low-quality aggregation,” she said.

“But this isn’t just about trans people. This is about the security of our voting data. It’s about the fact that if you can throw an extra per cent of voters in there that are fake then you have a problem.”

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Elections Canada said it is aware that some voters, including transgender and non-binary Canadians, face challenges when voting and registering. The agency says voters can update their information at polling stations and can request to do so privately. This can typically be done ahead of time by contacting the returning officer in their district, but the deadline for that has now passed.

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“Poll workers will make every effort to respect electors’ wishes for privacy and discretion,” Gauthier said. “They won’t be registered twice. We want to avoid having duplicate entries for the same individuals.”

It’s yet another barrier for trans people trying to access basic services, according to Madden, but also one that risks suppressing trans votes — intentionally or not.

“It’s part of our reality that we need to navigate these situations, but it still makes me feel vulnerable,” she said.

“On the 21st, in just a few days, you’re going to be surrounded by dozens, potentially hundreds of people voting. It might be a real struggle for someone, and I fear they might not vote in the end.”

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