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How 3 Milwaukee organizations are prioritizing the needs of immigrant and BIPOC voters

 Souls to the polls yard sign
Courtesy of Souls to the Polls
Souls to the Polls yard sign.

On Tuesday, April 5, Milwaukeeans will vote on who will become the city's next mayor. There have been several lawsuits and rulings regarding the ways in which people can vote, resulting in a ban on unmonitored ballot drop boxes. Some have called these efforts voter suppression tactics.

Voter suppression disproportionately affects young people, communities of color, immigrants and those who are low income. But Milwaukee-based community organizations are fighting against it.

woman holding a sign
Courtesy of Voces de la Frontera Action
A woman holds a sign that reads, "Soy votante."

Lake Effect’s Mallory Cheng talks with three leaders who are making sure voters in their communities are informed on how to get to the polls and how to vote. Norma Balentine is an administrative coordinator at Souls to the Polls. Christine Neumann-Ortiz is the executive director of Voces de la Frontera Action. And Paul Vang is the civic engagement director at the Hmong American Women’s Association.

They start the conversation by talking about examples of voter suppression. Balentine points to the loss of drop boxes as one example of a challenge impacting people with disabilities, and compares this to "very small cuts in terms of the ability of individuals to have free and unfettered access to voting."

Courtesy of Hmong American Women’s Association
People around a Hmong American Women’s Association information table.

Vang says voter suppression in a bit more subtle in the Southeast Asian community, and talks about language access. "In the city of Milwaukee, our ballots are available in English and Spanish, which I think is really great, but when you consider that there's over seven different Southeast Asian languages spoken here in the city of Milwaukee, in and of itself, then you really start to wonder about how much access are we really prioritizing for all of our communities here in Milwaukee?," he says. "The ways in which our policies do not consider the needs of our communities forms a sort of voter suppression that often doesn't get seen."

Immigrant communities are also more transient communities, and Vang says that's penalized by our voter registration system. He says if you add all of these different things together, access to voting is denied.

When it comes to creating access for people to vote, Neumann-Ortiz says bilingual poll workers that are trained on voting rights is very important as well as having people who can accompany others to the polls to help with language barriers.

Vang also highlights the importance of trust and having someone who is trusted within families and communities who can help people navigate issues, especially language issues, that can come up when voting and at polling places.

Another barrier to voting can be physically getting to your polling place, and Souls to the Polls provides free rides for people. Balentine says, "We know as high as a third of voters express that lack of transportation is a barrier to getting to the polls" and directs people to call 414-383-1821 to receive a ride or to volunteer to give rides.

As for changes that are needed in the election system that would help remove barriers, Vang says, "one of the biggest things that we can do is shift the narrative around — who gets to vote, what does a vote mean and who do we consider eligible to vote?"

Neumann-Ortiz adds that local officials need to be held accountable and that more voices be included in how elections are structured.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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