Seh Reh didn’t know how he was going to register to vote.
Reh is Karenni, originally from Southeast Asia, and doesn’t speak English very well. He became a citizen last year and this would be his first time voting, he said through an interpreter.
But when he showed up at a food distribution put on by the Milwaukee Consortium for Hmong Health late last month at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, he found help.
Sitting under a canopy behind a laptop, Zongcheng Moua helped Reh register online to vote, Reh’s Wisconsin-issued ID in hand and a volunteer Karenni interpreter close by.
It’s just one example of the efforts made by Moua, his wife, Mayhoua, and others in the Hmong community in Wisconsin to help Hmong Americans and other Asian Americans overcome barriers to voting.
Zongcheng Moua acknowledges the voter outreach effort he and Mayhoua have launched is small. They aren’t able to reach many of the roughly 13,000 Hmong and 10,000 other Southeast Asians living in Milwaukee County. But they try to do their part, weaving voter outreach efforts into their work.
“We try to be accessible,” said Mayhoua Moua.
Other Hmong groups in Wisconsin such as the Hmong American Women’s Association in Milwaukee, Cia Siab in La Crosse and Freedom Inc. in Madison have larger voter outreach operations, with programs and staff dedicated to civic engagement in their communities.
In the midst of the pandemic, they have turned to phone banking, social media and word-of-mouth, often in the Hmong language, to help Hmong Americans and others navigate an election cycle made more complicated by COVID-19.
Fastest growing group
In a battleground state that President Donald Trump won by less than 23,000 votes in 2016, turnout among Hmong, the largest Asian group in Wisconsin, and other Asian Americans could make a difference in this year’s presidential election.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. In Wisconsin, about 81,000 Asian Americans are eligible to vote, or about half the Asians in the state, according to a Pew analysis of 2018 census survey data.
Despite lower levels of educational attainment and higher levels of poverty, Hmong Americans have been somewhat successful in organizing politically and electing Hmong people to local and state government office. They are represented in the Minnesota Legislature, and have landed seats on school boards, city councils and county boards in Eau Claire, Stevens Point and Wausau.
But some in the Hmong and other Asian communities still face difficulty voting because of language barriers, cultural differences or unfamiliarity with the voting process, community members say.
Almost four in 10 Hmong-speaking eligible voters in Wisconsin have limited English proficiency, according to census data.
In some cases, election officials are required under the Voting Rights Act to provide language help to voters who don’t speak English well and to translate ballots and other election materials into their language.
However, the number of Hmong eligible voters who don’t speak English very well isn’t large enough anywhere in the state to trigger that requirement. Across the country, just 27 cities or counties meet the requirement.
Wisconsin does provide Hmong-language voter registration forms and mail-in ballot applications.
Milwaukee does not have Hmong-language ballots, said Claire Woodall-Vogg, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission. The city does recruit Hmong-speaking poll workers who Woodall-Vogg said are strategically placed in wards with higher Hmong populations.
Cia Siab and the Hmong American Women’s Association have been posting Facebook videos in Hmong showing where to go online to register and request a mail-in ballot. Freedom Inc. does phone banking in three languages — English, Hmong and Khmer — to remind people to vote, said Ntxhais Moua, community power coalition director at Freedom Inc. They also put on pop-up events, similar to the food distribution at St. Michael’s, with voter registration tied in.
Hmong American canvassers go door-to-door to help their elders, many of whom are not proficient in English, register to vote.
Paul Vang, civic engagement coordinator at the Hmong American Women’s Association, says even though the pandemic makes it difficult, in-person interaction is key.
“What’s really required in terms of getting Hmong and Southeast Asian people registered to vote is a lot of taking their hand and guiding them through the process,” he said. “I think our community really needs to be taken through step-by-step, especially with absentee ballots.”
Canvassers can also help them troubleshoot common problems, he said. Sometimes, a Hmong person may have trouble finding themselves in the voter rolls if their name was entered incorrectly. A Hmong person with two first names may instead show up as having a first name and a middle name, Vang said.
“We see this all the time with voter registration … because our names don’t exactly fit into the Anglo-Saxon way of putting names together,” he said.
Even if voters manage to get registered, they may need help finding information about the candidates in their language.
Cia Siab plans to put out a voter guide in Hmong with information about the candidates’ positions on certain issues, said Emily Yang, the La Crosse organization’s community empowerment coordinator.
Still, for those who aren’t literate or who don’t speak English well, it can be difficult to find reliable information about the candidates and educate themselves about their platforms, community members say.
“There’s a lot of unreliable news sources in the Hmong community. … (Some of) our folks are relying on whatever (Hmong) YouTubers are saying,” said Ntxhais Moua, community power coalition director at Freedom Inc.
Reh, the Karenni voter, said through an interpreter that he hadn’t decided who he would vote for and that he was still learning about the issues and candidates. He said he would learn from other Karenni-speakers on Facebook what the candidates stand for.
Community members say this election will be an important one for Hmong and other Southeast Asian Americans. The coronavirus pandemic and its impact on people’s lives, the economy and jobs have hit the Hmong community particularly hard, many of them said.
“The pandemic really exposed the extent to which the community has always been struggling,” Vang said.
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.