IBM partners with YMCA of LA for voting rights effort

As part of the Call for Code for Racial Justice project, the Five Fifths Voter web app was built to educate and empower disenfranchised minority voters to overcome setbacks incurred by voter suppression.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

IBM announced a new partnership with the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles designed to help expand awareness and access to voting in California. The two came together to create Five Fifths Voter; a web-based application built using open source-powered technology to help educate, empower and enable disenfranchised minority voters to overcome setbacks incurred by voter suppression. 

Deployed during National Voter Education Week, the tool was built to improve awareness of local, statewide and national issues in communities lacking traditional access to and education about voting. 

Five Fifths Voter can be found on both desktop and mobile browsers, providing one place where users can check their registration status, register to vote and access information about deadlines, ballot drop-offs and polling locations. It also offers resources tailored for specific circumstances, including parents requiring childcare, people with disabilities, convicted felons and senior citizens. 

Mario Valenzuela, vice president of equity and inclusion at the YMCA-LA, told ZDNet that the collaboration gives the YMCA-LA the virtual tools to educate and empower communities with essential resources to participate in the voting process.

"We're thankful for this opportunity to provide realistic solutions to this youth-led initiative to get out the vote and encourage community members to use their voice to facilitate positive change. For many voters, one major barrier is language. The federal Voting Rights Act and California election code require linguistically diverse areas to provide language help to voters," Valenzuela explained. 

"Between the two codes, county registrars also must make 'reasonable efforts' to recruit bilingual poll workers, translate election materials, and offer translated facsimile ballots. The Asian Americans Advancing Justice -- Asian Law Caucus monitors polls to see if they are following the law. Its reports continue to show some poll workers don't know that translated materials exist or where to find them. Although polling locations offer remote language services by video or phone, such services don't allow people to vote independently, as the state code intends."

Valenzuela added that IBM and the YMCA considered the language barrier when partnering to build the web application and provided a solution by offering this resource in the eleven most popular languages in LA County, ensuring voters will have access to all of the essential information that is needed to participate in upcoming elections.

In a statement, IBM and YMCA-LA noted that the United States Census Bureau found that in the 2020 General Election, 62.6% of Black residents, 59.7% of Asian residents and 53.7% of Hispanic residents voted, with 66.8% of all citizens 18 years and older casting ballots last year. 

The Census Bureau added that voter turnout increased alongside increases in age, educational attainment, and income in a recent report. 

Even though the latest numbers for California are all-time highs, the numbers are still low, particularly for non-presidential elections like the recent California Statewide Special (Recall) election.

The app was designed with the help of YMCA-LA and members from its Teens and Government program that took part in a workshop with IBM to uncover specific issues they faced while trying to vote. 

The effort is one of several IBM is helping to shepherd as part of the Call for Code for Racial Justice project, which seeks to harness the power of the developer community to create practical tools that help tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time: racial injustice.

Five Fifths Voter was part of a group of seven different projects backed by IBM. IBM Call for Code Director Ruth Davis told ZDNet that the code is containerized and can be deployed across hybrid cloud environments, including multi-cloud with Red Hat OpenShift. Some of the open source frameworks and languages used include Vue.js, Node.js, Python, Apache CouchDB and Carbon Design System. 

Davis added that the web app is hosted on IBM Cloud and was built using technology including IBM Watson Tone Analyzer and Watson Natural Language Understanding alongside the Google Civic and Google Maps APIs.

All seven of the projects that are part of the Call for Code for Racial Justice program are shared online, so anyone can contribute code to enhance them, focusing on three key areas: police and judicial reform and accountability, diverse representation and policy and legislation reform. The efforts are part of the larger Call for Code initiative, which has worked with more than 500,000 developers across 180 nations since 2018.

"Working with strong community organizations like YMCA-LA was our goal when we first created Call for Code for Racial Justice. We believe bringing together developers, ecosystem partners, and communities around the world can drive lasting impact in the fight against systemic racism and are looking forward to enhancing Five Fifths Voter's capabilities and bringing it to more communities," Davis said.

"With Five Fifths Voter, we're helping to address a byproduct of systemic racism, voter suppression. That's why for National Voter Education Week, together with the YMCA of Los Angeles, we are bringing Five Fifths Voter to life and localizing it to the Los Angeles community's diverse needs, which are representative of the nation's as a whole. The web app will help ensure disenfranchised minority voters are educated, empowered, and enabled to overcome setbacks incurred by voter suppression."

Davis added that seven projects created through the Call for Code for Racial Justice initiative, including Five Fifths Voter, were adopted into open governance by the Linux Foundation in February of this year. 

For Davis, the beauty of the program is that it allows developers to build on top of the open source technology and further customize it for their own communities.

"One of the best parts of open source is that it gives a broader, more diverse group of people influence over technology, which enables us to build better and more useful solutions. In June 2021, we held a series of Design Thinking workshops with partners and racial justice experts to enhance these solutions further and expand the Call for Code for Racial Justice ecosystem," Davis explained. 

"From this experience, Five Fifths Voter was adapted to fit the needs of the Los Angeles community. The solution reflects the input, perspectives, and experiences of the community building it, not just one person, organization, or demographic."

Davis noted that because the project is available in open source, developers can further customize and scale Five Fifths Voter, meaning it can continue to be enhanced as more developers contribute their code to it. 

There are already things Davis envisions could help build out the platform, including making the web app more personalized and interactive, so the content addresses people's individual needs and questions.

She floated the possibility that the app could be integrated with personal calendars to set up reminders of voting deadlines and social media accounts to make communicating the information available through Five Fifths Voter easy to do with friends and family.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti lauded the effort and said the YMCA had been an invaluable resource for young Angelenos and their families for decades. 

"Through this collaboration with IBM, the Y will foster civic engagement and help to make our democracy more accessible to young people across the region," Garcetti said.  

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