Asian Counseling and Referral Service was founded in 1973 as a small mental-health-service provider. ACRS is one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
In Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), Tuyet Nguyen found a place to teach. On most weekdays, she’s at the nonprofit agency’s Rainier Valley headquarters, eating at Club Bamboo, its lunch program for Asian and Pacific Islander seniors. Afterward, she leads the group in a round of light exercise or coaches the more game members to perform traditional Vietnamese dances.
She’s recently taken on another subject: getting other immigrant voters involved in the election process. Nguyen is one of several volunteers who help propel ACRS’ grass-roots voter-engagement program, which aims to get Washington immigrants and residents of Asian and Pacific Islander descent more involved in civic life.
For ACRS clients who are new to the voting process, Nguyen, 63, is a guide. She walks first-time voters, many of them seniors, through the process of filling out and returning their ballots. When state and local politicians come to hear from community members, she translates their speeches for Vietnamese clients who aren’t fluent in English.
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“Voting is a duty as a citizen,” she said. Nguyen arrived in Seattle in the early 1990s. After completing the naturalization process, one of her first moves was registering to vote.
Nguyen said her new priorities include teaching dance and speaking about the importance of voting. She credits ACRS, one of 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, with creating opportunities for herself and other senior immigrants to do both.
ACRS was founded in 1973 as a small mental-health-service provider. Four decades later, the nonprofit now helps thousands of clients each year with services, including legal aid, chemical-dependency treatment, and job training.
ACRS’ nonpartisan civic-engagement program, established in 2015, attempts to encourage eligible Asian and Pacific Islander to vote by setting up voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives in the run-up to elections. They hold parties where voters from immigrant communities gather to fill out ballots and hear explanations of the issues. Working with a palette of about 20 different languages, they run ads highlighting voting deadlines and other practical information in media serving the Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
Since starting the program, ACRS has organized candidate forums for voters from the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, including a 2016 debate co-sponsored with the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington between Gov. Jay Inslee and his then-opponent Bill Bryant.
In terms of increasing the number of people engaged in the political process, the campaign appears to be successful. Since 2016, it has registered between 200 and 300 voters each year.
At its heart, the ACRS campaign is designed to end what program manager Joseph Lachman calls a “cycle of disenfranchisement in the community.” Voters from Asian and Pacific Islander communities are often overlooked by other civic-engagement programs, and they might never see pro-voting messages that speak directly to their communities, he said.
Observers say there’s a variety of reasons for the low numbers. Some immigrants of Asian and Pacific Islander arrive in the United States having never gotten involved in civic life of their native countries. Language barriers also remain an issue, despite efforts by federal, state and local governments to address it. Voter turnout is 9 percent lower for registered voters who have limited English than for fluent English speakers, according to a national survey of Asian and Pacific Island voters after the 2012 election.
As per federal and local regulations, the King County Board of Elections makes ballots available in several languages other than English, including Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Voting guides are available in several others, but Asian and Pacific Islander populations speak dozens of languages not yet included.
Kendall Hodson, chief of staff for King County Elections, said the county recognizes that language barriers remain. To overcome them, the elections department, in partnership with the Seattle Foundation, provides $460,000 in grants to agencies who like ACRS are trying to bridge the engagement gap.
Hodson said civic-engagement efforts like ACRS’ are about ensuring that immigrant communities are aware of the issues that affect their communities and take opportunities to weigh in. “I think our philosophy is that democracy works best when everyone has an opportunity to be heard,” she said.
The county doesn’t tally voter turnout by racial demographics, but Hodson said registration among voters who primarily speak a language other than English has increased by about 50 percent since the effort launched in 2017.
Increasing those numbers could bridge what advocates say is a lingering disconnect between immigrant communities and policymakers.
To Nguyen, a 2012 fight over reductions in bus service highlights the importance of becoming involved in political life. In 2012, King County Metro reduced the frequency of bus route 42, which primarily serviced the Martin Luther King corridor.
Nguyen remembers the move limiting the ability of several of her friends to commute to classes at ACRS’ Rainier Valley location. ACRS and its clients joined the public outcry to keep the route. Though 42 was eventually mothballed, Metro restructured other bus routes to pick up the slack.
“If you live in a country, you have to know who’s at the top, what they want to do and how it will affect you.”
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