Cherry Cayabyab stands next to a ballot drop box across from the King County Courthouse. • Photo by Ashley McCuen
Cherry Cayabyab stands next to a ballot drop box across from the King County Courthouse. • Photo by Ashley McCuen

In recent months, the King County Elections office has taken action to fix the growing gap between voter services and immigrants, refugees, and Limited English Speaking (LES) communities.

An ordinance unanimously approved by the King County Council in July expanded access to voting by broadening the standard set in Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act to include Korean and Spanish, currently the two largest groups of LES King County residents, by the 2016 general election. Voter materials are currently available in Chinese and Vietnamese. Other languages may be added starting in 2017.

With the implementation of the new voting materials, King County Elections brought on community activist Cherry Cayabyab in December as their lead inclusive engagement consultant to help ensure the public was aware that election materials were available in multiple languages.

Cayabyab’s main work will be creating an implementation plan that includes building partnerships, language outreach, education, and ethnic media, said King County Elections director Julie Wise.

Wise first met Cayabyab when Cayabyab served as the POC Vote manager in partnership with the Win/Win Network, a group of organizations that successfully advocated for the redistricting of a majority-minority congressional district in 2012, the first in Washington State.

“I wanted to bring someone on who had the experience, professionalism, and the partnerships and relationships with community-based organizations and citizens in general,” Wise said.

For the past three years, Cayabyab, 37, worked as a community engagement strategic advisor for the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. In this position, she supervised a community liaison program that improved government outreach and inclusive engagement to communities of color, including immigrants and refugees. The program won a great model award from the National League of Cities.

Cayabyab also co-founded the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees, and Communities of Color (CIRCC), was formerly on the board of Asian Pacific American Coalition for Equality (APACE), and is currently on the boards of Got Green? and NAC Nonprofit Assistance Center. She also advocated in the founding of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA).

In her new position, Cayabyab will work as an advisor to King County Elections. She will put together their 2016 inclusive engagement plan among LES voters, which will include deeper and culturally relevant ideas for LES communities around voter education, registration and participation.

In addition, Cayabyab plans to partner with local community-based organizations to engage voters, provide more ethnic media outreach, and establish more grassroots one to one community engagement with LES communities.

“Voting is a human right,” Cayabyab said. “Many immigrants and refugees leave countries that don’t necessarily practice that democratic process.” When immigrants and refugees become U.S. citizens, Cayabyab explained, they are eager and motivated to exercise their right to vote.

However, the obstacles are apparent for increasing civic engagement with new immigrant communities.

“It’s the inaccessibility and complications of systems that can be challenging to navigate for [new citizens], to register to vote or to even read a ballot,” said Cayabyab.

Wise also said that recent low voter turnout in immigrant and LES communities is concerning. “I want to make sure my office is doing everything we can so that we aren’t making it hard for people to participate,” Wise said. “Part of that is making it easy and not having hoops to jump through.”

Considering these obstacles, the office plans to increase translated material, educate voters on how to register and how to read a ballot, and teach voters how to become informed about the candidates and ballot measures.

Cayabyab said she understands these challenges first hand as a first generation immigrant. Born in the Philippines, she immigrated with her parents to Southern California when she was four years old. While her parents were naturalized in 1986, Cayabyab did not become a U.S. citizen until 2012, largely because her parents did not fully understand the Immigrant Naturalization System (INS).

“It turns out that I was a U.S. citizen this whole time, but I never knew or thought I was, so I could never vote,” Cayabyab said.

Akemi Matsumoto, founding board member of APACE, began working with Cayabyab on voting rights and voter access in 2008.

“She’s lived the experience of immigration, knowing how difficult it is, how hard you have to work to assert yourself and make sure you get equal rights,” Matsumoto said. “All of her work has been about accessing marginalized communities. This is her life work. It’s not just a job.”

Peter Bloch Garcia, executive director of the Latino Community Fund has known and worked with Cayabyab since their graduate school days. Currently, Garcia is involved with the voter work plan Cayabyab is proposing for King County.

“It was because of her values and principles of equity and inclusion that she was able to build trusting relationships that built stronger unity even across different races,” Garcia said.

Cayabyab is currently meeting with various community groups and working with King County leadership to finalize the voter work plan for 2016.  “It’s really a long term vision and effort improving the overall quality of services for the department,” Cayabyab said.

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Editor’s Note: The February 17, 2016 print edition version of this article incorrectly listed Cherry Cayabyab as being currently on the boards of APACE, Win/Win, and APIA Vote. Cayabyab was formerly on the board of APACE and never on the boards of Win/Win and APIA Vote. Cayabyab is currently on the boards of Got Green? and NAC Nonprofit Assistance Center. The IE regrets the error.

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