By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Voter suppression seems like a thing of the past, after all no group is denied the right to vote based on their gender or race, but just because something is outlawed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in other forms.
Today, voter suppression takes form in voter ID laws, purged voter rolls, language barriers and more. Jessica Boling witnessed voter suppression firsthand during the 2020 election when she served as the Wisconsin Asian American Pacific Islander outreach director for Biden for President. After her work in Wisconsin, Boling went to help with the Georgia runoff election, where she worked as the Asian American Pacific Islander field director.
Boling has long been involved in Asian American Pacific Islander representation. When she moved to Milwaukee, the lack of AAPI representation was notable. She partnered with some friends to increase AAPI awareness and in January 2020, she became the AAPI director of community engagement for the Milwaukee 2020 Host Committee.
After the convention was postponed and later canceled, Boling was reassigned to work on the campaign.
“I was really excited to work on such a historical campaign,” Boling said. “And make sure that AAPI vote was included and that their voices felt like they were heard.”
The AAPI community often feels overlooked or ignored, she explained. Outreach groups don’t always make an effort to engage them, but Boling’s position signified that someone was paying attention to the group and most important, that someone looked like them.
Boling and her team worked to engage the AAPI community across the state. Their efforts included encouraging people to vote and combating voter suppression efforts.
The lack of clear instructions regarding absentee ballots, voter registration and early voting left many people confused and unsure how to proceed.
One example of voter suppression in the AAPI community is the ballot itself. Not everyone knows how to read or fill out the ballot, Boling explained. An absentee ballot can be discarded if not filled out correctly, as seen during the April 7 election, during which thousands of absentee ballots were discarded.
A ballot could be discarded because it lacked a witness signature, which proved to be an issue in the AAPI community, Boling said.
“A lot of people live alone and we’re in a pandemic,” Boling said. “So, people didn’t have the availability to have a witness do that for them.”
Limited polling sites during early voting, also caused misunderstanding. The county and the registrar’s office decide their county’s early voting practices, but its not uniform across the state, which proved confusing for people, Boling said.
Additionally, while Wisconsinites were encouraged to request an absentee ballot online, not everyone has access to technology or knows how to use technology, Boling said.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of Boling’s outreach efforts took place virtually. Normally, the outreach team sets up tables at grocery stores or community events, but not this time. Instead, Boling held one-on-one meetings with people and organized listening sessions for various groups within the AAPI community.
The listening sessions were an opportunity for people to have their voices heard, Boling said. Boling connected with people on the grassroot level and created a leadership council, which spearheaded a social media campaign that included Facebook Live discussions and listening sessions with Gov. Tony Evers.
Boling’s team worked with Hmong Americans for Biden to create videos explaining how to fill out the absentee ballot. It bought airtime on the local Hmong TV channel (channel 38) during which the co-chair gave a PSA on how to fill out an absentee ballot, vote early and register to vote. It met with community elders and utilized Hmong phone banks.
“We really encouraged throughout our messaging for younger people to really help their elders fill out their absentee ballot or figure out how to register to vote or take them to the polls,” Boling said.
During the group’s outreach efforts, they learned that the number of available resources was limited.
“There were some resources, but we had to really supplement those resources,” Boling said. “We had to get out the videos and the translations. A lot of it had to be audio recorded and shared across the platform.”
It was challenging, Boling said, but the virtual platform allowed the group to interact with the entire state versus one specific region. Overall, Boling said they did a good job given the situation.
Later, when Boling went to work in Georgia, she hit the ground running. Using her skills and her ability to work quickly, Boling arranged meetings with local leaders and went door-to-door encouraging people to vote.
Although the campaign is over, the effort in Wisconsin still exists. The position Boling occupied during the campaign is now a permanent one. People were impressed by that, Boling said, adding that it shows an investment is being made in the AAPI community.
While Boling is figuring out her next step, she hopes that the AAPI community continues to be recognized and heard.
“I don’t have any specific plans at this point, but I’m looking forward to figuring out where the next endeavor will be for me that will inevitably be having a positive impact on the world,” Boling said. “Where I can align my values and my interests to making this a better world for everyone.”