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More transgender candidates face challenges running for office in Ohio for omitting their deadname

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Several transgender candidates for state office in Ohio are facing challenges and even outright disqualification for omitting their former names from petition paperwork under a little-known state elections law, confronting a unique dilemma as they vie for office in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

Three of the four candidates for Democratic seats in the Republican-dominated Ohio House and Senate have either been challenged or disqualified for not putting their former name — also called a deadname — on circulating petitions to get on the ballot. State law mandates that candidates list any name changes in the last five years, though it isn't in the Secretary of State's 33-page candidate requirement guide.

Additionally, the petition paperwork does not have a place to list any former names and exempts name changes due to marriage.

Arienne Childrey, a previously certified candidate from Auglaize County hoping to run against Rep. Angie King, a Republican sponsoring anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, has her own disqualification hearing Thursday.

But just Tuesday, Bobbie Arnold, a contractor from West Alexandria who had been certified, had her possible disqualification dismissed by the Montgomery County Board of Elections. A message was left with the board's director, Jeff Rezabeck, seeking comment Tuesday.

Michigan has a similar elections law, which mandates candidates list any name changes in the past decade. It's unclear if other states have one. The Associated Press reached out to several election experts and organizations tracking election laws, and none were aware of how many states require candidates to disclose name changes.

The Ohio law has existed in some form for decades, with the current version in place since the 1990s. It's rarely been enforced in Ohio over the decades, usually in response to candidates wishing to use a nickname on the ballot.

The latest case involving a legal name change was resolved in 2023 by the Ohio Supreme Court, after a mayoral candidate sued the Washington County Board of Elections for disqualifying him for failing to disclose his former name on his petition paperwork. The state's highest court ruled for the board.

Vanessa Joy, a real estate photographer from Stark County, was the first of the candidates to be disqualified for omitting her deadname, despite being certified. She appealed the disqualification but was denied.

The Stark County Board of Elections did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday as their media official was not in the office.

Joy said in a recent email release that she is working with legal counsel and the Ohio Democratic Party to change the law. While she agrees with the spirit of the law, she said it's become yet another barrier for transgender people fighting to be heard.

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine told Cleveland.com's editorial board Tuesday that the boards of elections should stop disqualifying transgender candidates for omitting their deadnames and that some sort of change is in order to ensure their ballot access.

Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told AP last week that his office is not open to changing the law but is looking into mentioning it in the candidate guide.

He said it's important for people to disclose who they are and any former identities, so the voters know who is asking to be put on the ballot.

“Candidates for public office don’t get anonymity,” LaRose said, also noting that the guide carries a disclaimer that it does not list every rule and that candidates should seek counsel on any additional rules that could impact them.

But to the transgender community, revealing a deadname — or the name assigned to them at birth that doesn't align with their gender identity — could lead to personal safety issues.

Zooey Zephyr, a transgender Montana lawmaker who was silenced by the state House, had her name change records legally sealed before holding office. However, she said that didn't stop people from trying to dig up her birth certificate and harass and threaten people connected to her deadname.

Zephyr said she also finds LaRose's argument about candidates not getting anonymity “hollow" since the statute exempts name changes due to marriage.

“For the Secretary of State to say public figures don’t get anonymity while allowing that for women who are getting married fails to recognize the seriousness of the issue for trans people," she said.

Ari Faber, who is running for the state Senate from Athens, Ohio, is the only one of the four not impacted by the law. He has not legally changed his name and was not allowed to run under his current name, so his paperwork contains his deadname.

Joy, Arnold and Childrey all were adamant that if they had known about the law, they would have disclosed their deadname. Running to represent the LGBTQ+ community is important to them, especially as bans on gender-affirming care and barring transgender athletes from female sports are likely to become law in Ohio.

"If I am kicked off the ballot, then I have every intention to refile for the very next election and I will do whatever they want," Childrey said. “I will put my current name, my dead name, at what age I was potty trained. I don’t care what they want on the form. I will continue to fight this battle.”

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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.