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‘Slap in the face’: Trans voters say they’re still seeing ‘deadnames’ on voter cards

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Only two years after the last federal election, many trans and non-binary Canadians are staring down the same barrel they’ve deliberately tried to avoid — a voter card with their deadname.

Faelan Quinn, of Ottawa, Ont. is one of those Canadians. Their maroon-and-white-coloured card showed up Wednesday. To their disappointment, it displayed a name they legally changed more than four years prior.

“I had been led to believe that this would not be an issue after the last federal election when I had updated my information with Elections Canada,” Quinn told Global News.

“I thought I wasn’t going to have to deal with this anymore.”

Read more: Trans woman required to identify as ‘male’ by Immigration Canada — ‘It was agony’

Quinn is far from the only one, and this is far from the first federal election where trans and non-binary Canadians are facing this dilemma.

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Quinn’s fiancé, Fae Johnstone, tweeted about the experience Wednesday and was met with a flood of similar disappointing responses.

Some said they legally changed their name in 2014 and said they’ve been “deadnamed in all federal elections since.” Others explained receiving two separate cards — one with a correct name, the other with a deadname. One Twitter user simply responded with: “Same. 20ish years later.”

“It’s not an isolated issue, it’s not a one-off,” said Johnstone, who is a trans educator and organizer.

“It’s dispiriting, and it sends a message that our needs aren’t important enough.”

Jumping through hoops

Using someone’s ‘deadname’ — the name a person used before transitioning — can be invalidating to trans people, Johnstone said. It can quickly turn a run-of-the-mill situation into a stressful and potentially discriminatory one for some.

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Despite the issue coming to light in 2019 and previous elections, many trans and non-binary Canadians maintain they’ve done the legwork to avoid this, Quinn being just one.

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Elections Canada says it pulls from different data sources to update its National Register of Electors, including driver’s licence bureaus, the Canadian Revenue Agency and provincial voter records. While name and gender changes are updated automatically, the agency said conflicting or dated information from one or multiple of these sources can cause a kink in the chain.

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

Elections Canada told Global News the same thing during the 2019 election. A number of trans and non-binary Canadians took to social media at the time to lament the issue.

In an email to Global News on Thursday, Elections Canada apologized to any elector who receives a voter information card using their deadname.

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But Quinn says, once again, it feels like Elections Canada is deflecting the blame — even though they “went through the channels” the agency requires to have the name change reflected.

“And I’m certain this is not only an issue for trans people, this is an issue for anyone who changes their legal information for any reason,” they said.

Quinn Airlie, of Vancouver, was hit with a feeling of exhaustion when they saw their deadname on their voter card this week. “Like an internal groan,” they said.

Airlie changed their name more recently — February 2020 — but had successfully received a new driver’s licence and other government documentation. They also voted in a recent provincial election using their legal name without issue.

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Airlie acknowledges there’s more following up to do on their part. While they updated their driver’s licence and other photo ID cards, they’ve yet to make the change with the Canada Revenue Agency — one of the sources Elections Canada relies on to validate identities.

Airlie said the pandemic got in the way of updating that in time, but that they’ve shown their name change certificate at local and provincial polling stations in the past and an update wasn’t made.

According to Elections Canada, information can be updated in person at official offices by 6 p.m. the Tuesday before election day. It can also be updated at assigned polling stations.

“There may also have been a delay in those sources sending updates,” a spokesperson explained.

Airlie believes a government system that consolidates personal data is long overdue.

“It’s like, even after you think you’re done, you’re not,” Airlie said. “It’s the system that’s the problem.”

“And I know a lot of people who will see that and not go vote just because of the stress.”

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Johnstone shares the same fears. Trans folks are statistically more likely to be subjected to public harassment and face poverty and other extenuating social and economic hardships, Johnstone said, which can act as barriers to civic and political engagement.

“So when you add additional barriers to that, such as not being able to accurately provide our voting information, it puts up more walls to those already facing significant barriers to voter engagement,” Johnstone said.

Read more: New report says racialized trans, non-binary Canadians face increased harassment, violence

Improvements need to be made on a large scale, Johnstone and Quinn agree.

“It feels like a huge slap in the face to our civil rights as Canadians, that we keep facing these additional barriers to voting that others are not.”

'Daunting'

In 2019, Elections Canada acknowledged that the agency was “always looking for ways to increase accuracy” of its database to “reflect the Canadian population as precisely as possible in time for an election.”

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When asked what, if any, progress has been made on improving that accuracy ahead of this year’s election, a spokesperson said Thursday that Elections Canada has mailed verification letters to Canadians who are in the registry but whose records have not been updated or confirmed through other official sources or by the electors themselves “in several years.”

Considering the agency manages 500 million records every year — including changes to addresses, adding new citizens and removing those who died — the spokesperson said maintaining it presents a “complex challenge.”

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Both Quinn and Airlie said they did not receive a notice to verify their information ahead of getting their voter card, though it’s not entirely clear if the chorus of Canadians on Twitter facing similar situations did, or what specific data error would trigger a notice being sent out.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t explain why someone like Quinn, who followed the process laid out by Elections Canada to fix the issue two years ago, will have to do it again this year.

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In its email to Global News, Elections Canada said “updating information directly with Elections Canada” — such as at polling stations — “ensures electors’ names appear correctly on their voter registration and voter information card.”

“The first time was unpleasant enough. I was taken out of line, pulled aside to a separate table, which of course drew a lot of attention to me. As a trans person, that alone carries a certain inherent discomfort,” Quinn said.

“The thought of having to repeat that interaction … it’s daunting.”

Airlie took it one step further.

“I’m already voting in an election I didn’t want,” they said.

“It’s just another embarrassing, pointless fight.”

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