Volunteer Spotlight: Helping Voters Navigate an Unprecedented Election Year

A conversation with Code for Puerto Rico on the Brigade's 2020 challenges and success stories

At the end of last year, the Brigade Network identified voting rights as one of our priority action areas for 2020. While we knew that it would be important for Americans to feel safe, secure, and knowledgeable about voting in a presidential election year, we had no idea just how important it would become in a year where voting protocols were upended in all corners of the country—including those off the mainland.

To help voters in Puerto Rico through a challenging and often confusing election season, Code for Puerto Rico launched Para Votar, a tool to practice filling out your ballot and staying up-to-date on relevant election information.

For our final volunteer spotlight of the year, we caught up with Code for Puerto Rico captain Froilán Irizarry Rivera to hear more about the project, the challenges of running a geographically split Brigade, and providing a resource in an unprecedented election year.

Code for Puerto Rico’s volunteers are split between mainland and island. How does that dynamic affect the Brigade as a whole?

We think the major issues we’ve faced are communication, time difference, and a bit of community culture. The ways of working and communicating are a bit different. People working in US companies tend to be a bit more direct, which sometimes comes off as cold. This has come up in some community interactions and we are actively working to help our members improve their experience.

Language is also an issue. The Puerto Rican diaspora includes people that were raised in PR and those that have never been to the island—but the common thread is that we all want to help. This means that we have some community members that don’t speak Spanish or don’t speak English, either at all or often. There’s also an additional burden of having to make most things in both languages at once.

Tool and service exhaustion is another issue. People are still getting used to the new reality of having to do everything in an asynchronous way. There is a bit of friction in telling somebody to document tasks and product enhancements in a GitHub issue, as a simple example, and not just write updates on Slack.

In our opinion, all of this can lead to people not feeling engaged and part of the process. We are definitely still learning what the best approach is and are trying to come up with a playbook for our teams.



So, Para Votar! Why was it important to you to build a voter empowerment project this year?

The main reason was it’s an election year, pure and simple. Our thought was that if there was a time where we could really make a positive impact with a tool like this it was 2020. We had the assumption that having an election on everybody’s mind would make it easier to get feedback, promote, and get partners to work together on a singular goal.

Then there’s the ballots used in Puerto Rico. There’s a voting concept in PR called “voto integro,” this simply means you vote for the party all down the ballot. The major difference to other jurisdictions that we’ve seen is that in our ballots you can make a mark under a party insignia to accomplish this. This design has some historical reasons that are hard to discern, but what it accomplishes is that people just vote for a party and not candidates.

While some people vote this way knowingly, others do so with the fear of invalidating their ballot by making the incorrect marks. We received feedback from voters that they’ve always voted this way because they didn’t understand the ballots or how to vote in a different way, and they wanted their vote to count. This feedback isn’t new to this election cycle, but we decided to make the election our primary effort and that’s when the Para Votar team came over with a prototype and wanted to work on the problem even more.

The last four years have also been very hard on the island, and in the past two years there’s been a huge increment in politically engaged communities—much higher than in previous years. The corruption scandals from the mismanagement of the hurricane Maria disaster and the ousting of the governor during the summer of 2019 protest pushed people to be more active politically and to question how they participate and cast their vote.

Screenshot of explainer text and sample ballot
Para Votar explains voting options in plain language and offers visual ballot examples

What were you surprised to learn during the project?

We were surprised to learn how difficult it was to get accurate information about the electoral process in Puerto Rico. For example, listing the requirements for registering to vote and finding the registration centers was a challenge. We think that this is basic information that should be clear and accessible to the public at any time.

We were also surprised by the amount of ways that a citizen could make a valid vote. Being able to explain all of the vote types and variations that could be made on the different ballots gave an opportunity to educate others, but also educate ourselves.

What was the most challenging part of building ParaVotar? What was the most rewarding?

Para Votar had two very challenging parts: design and programming.
Para Votar is a project that tries to inform everyone in the most convenient way possible. In Puerto Rico, most people have cell phones but they don’t necessarily have laptops or desktops. With this in mind, we decided that the project had to work on cell phones, which meant that the app’s design had to be responsive. Making a responsive app on the web is not that difficult, but making a huge ballot fit into a phone screen was quite challenging. The main goal was to keep the ballot exactly the same as the one that the user was going to see on Election Day. To achieve this goal, we provided a navigation that would allow the voter to see all of the candidates and practice their vote. We collaborated with experts in accessibility to ensure that all voters have a great experience.

The other challenging part of the was implementing the vote validator. When we started building Para Votar we knew that this was the most important feature of the app. Our mission was simple: Provide confidence to the electorate that their vote wouldn’t be invalidated on the day of the election. To complete our mission we had to implement all of the voting rules that are in Puerto Rico’s Electoral Code and apply them to each ballot.

For us, the most humbling and rewarding part of building this project was seeing how people accepted it and started recommending it to family, friends and strangers as a good resource for practicing their vote. For example, on the day of the election, one of our team members was in the line to cast her vote and she saw how people in the line were recommending Para Votar to each other.



What else is Code for Puerto Rico working on?

First, we are taking a small break for the holidays after a hard year.

But here are a few of our ongoing projects:

  • ContratosPR is a project that scrapes government contract data from the Puerto Rico Comptroller’s website. The intent is to improve the accessibility of the data by indexing the data shown on the website, but also by downloading and indexing the information found in the contract documents. The project consists on a website that focuses more on discoverability and insights than assuming the user knows what they are looking for and of an API to make the data accessible to interested users in a more raw format.
  • ParaVotar is still ongoing, and we are providing support to community partners, but the team is on a much needed break. The work is now on keeping the site up to date with any changes in the electoral laws and getting feedback from educators that are using the site to teach civics.
  • SuministrosPR is a project to help communities ask for help with supplies during a disaster. It also helps relief efforts know what is needed where. This project was started outside of Code for Puerto Rico, but we ended up helping the original authors rewrite and redeploy it. There are some outstanding issues with the site and some improvements we want to start looking at to gauge if it’s worth working on or archiving for a more robust platform.

We are also working on overall Brigade improvements. We are looking at all the feedback, wins, failures, and learnings from this year and putting our heads together to improve for 2021. That includes adding new members to our core team, writing playbooks for design, engineering, and accessibility, starting virtual hack nights/days, improving the experience and engagement when joining our Slack, reaching out to universities, identifying and onboarding new advisors, and the list goes on.

All of our to-dos are publicly available, and we look forward to seeing what the Brigade can accomplish in 2021.

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