A Transgender Candidate in Ohio was Disqualified from the State Ballot for Omitting her Former Name
Samantha Hendrickson and Geoff Mulvihill READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Despite receiving enough signatures to appear on the ballot, a transgender woman has been disqualified from an Ohio House race because she omitted her previous name, raising concern that other transgender candidates nationwide may face similar barriers.
Vanessa Joy of was one of four transgender candidates running for state office in Ohio, largely in response to proposed restrictions of the rights of LGBTQ+ people. She was running as a Democrat in House District 50 – a heavily Republican district in Stark County, Ohio – against GOP candidate Matthew Kishman. Joy legally changed her name and birth certificate in 2022, which she says she provided to the Stark County Board of Elections for the March 19 primary race.
But as Joy found out Tuesday, a little-known 1990s state law says that a candidate must provide any name changes within the last five years to qualify for the ballot. Since the law is not currently listed on the candidate requirement guidelines on the Ohio Secretary of State's website, Joy didn't know it existed.
To provide her former name, Joy said, would be to use her deadname – a term used by the transgender community to refer to the name given at birth, not one they chose that aligns with their gender identity.
And while Joy said the spirit of the law is to weed out bad actors, it creates a barrier for transgender people who want to run for office and may not want to share their deadname for important reasons, including concern about their personal safety.
"If I had known that I had to put my deadname on my petitions, I personally would have because being elected was important to me," Joy said. "But for many it would be a barrier to entry because they would not want their names on the petitions."
She continued, "It's a danger and that name is dead."
The Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose's office and the Stark County Board of Elections did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Thursday. It is not clear if this law has applied to any current or previous state lawmakers.
Rick Hasen, a professor at UCLA School of Law and an election expert, said that requiring candidates to disclose any name changes posed problems in Ohio, but generally serves a purpose. "If a candidate has something to hide in their past like criminal activity, disclosing former names used by the candidate would make sense," Hasen said in an email.
Sean Meloy, the vice president of political programs for LGBTQ+ Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ+ candidates, said he does not know of tracking efforts to find how many states require name changes in petition paperwork.
"The biggest issue is the selective enforcement of it," Meloy said in an interview Thursday.
Over the last few years, many states have ramped up restrictions on transgender people – including barring minors from accessing gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers and hormones. In some states, that has extended to limitations on which school bathrooms trans children and students can use and which sports teams they can join.
Last year, Meloy said, a record number of candidates who are transgender sought and won office, and he expects that trend to continue in 2024.
Ohio lawmakers passed restrictions late last year that were vetoed by the state's Republican governor, though many Republican state representatives say they're planning to override that veto as soon as next week.
Meloy said that some conservatives are trying to silence transgender voices.
He pointed to Zooey Zephyr, a transgender lawmaker who was blocked last year from speaking on Montana's House floor after she refused to apologize for telling colleagues who supported a ban on gender-affirming care that they would have blood on their hands.
"Now that anti-trans legislation is being moved once again," Meloy said, "this seems like a selectively enforced action to try to keep another trans person from doing that."
Joy appealed her disqualification Thursday, and is now seeking legal representation. She plans to try to change Ohio's law.
"We're going to see this happening all over the place," she said. "This could be a snowball if I'm just the start of it. This is horrible news for the trans community."
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.