Casting ballots independently

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A collaborative project at MSU that involved engineering students may provide better accessibility at polling places. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.October 29, 2013

An idea that was advanced during an engineering capstone class at Michigan State University has evolved into a voting joystick that could eventually enable people with dexterity impairments to exercise their right to cast ballots independently.

On Nov. 5, many will vote absentee – or skip voting altogether – because of the often tedious and difficult nature of casting ballots on the current accessible voting machines. Those machines require users with dexterity challenges to press small buttons or switches repeatedly, often requiring the help of a volunteer.

The “Smart Voting Joystick,” which is comparable to the joystick used to control motorized wheelchairs, represents a vast improvement, said Sarah Swierenga, who led the joystick project as director of MSU Usability/Accessibility Research and Consulting in University Outreach and Engagement.

Some 125,000 people in the United States use a joystick-controlled wheelchair and nearly seven million have difficulty grasping objects, suggesting a growing need for better accessible voting devices.

“Accessibility at the polling place has been a focus for years, yet it remains ineffective,” Swierenga said. “The expectation among the next generation is that they’re not going to put up with this the way prior generations might have. The pendulum is swinging toward inclusion on many issues, voting being one of them.”

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, through the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the joystick has proven successful in user testing on MSU’s campus. Implementation would depend on federal approval and a manufacturer coming forward to produce the device, said Swierenga, adding that the feedback from vendors has been positive.

Matthew “Mo” Gerhardt tested the joystick and said such a device could lure him back to the voting booth. Gerhardt, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, has voted absentee for years after a trip to the polls required someone to help him vote and left him frustrated.

According to an April report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, most polling places nationwide have made strides to improve accessibility, but 46 percent still have a system that poses a challenge to voters with disabilities, such as stations not arranged to accommodate wheelchair users.

“One of the highlights of being able to vote is being able to do it independently,” said Gerhardt, a student adviser in MSU’s College of Natural Science. “When you vote absentee you almost feel detached. You don’t have that same sense on Election Day of making a difference.”

Swierenga said the joystick project highlights the collaborative nature and benefits of a major research university working to solve real-world problems. The initiative brought together a team of MSU faculty, undergraduate engineering students, rehabilitation specialists and usability and accessibility researchers and interns.

Swierenga, Stephen Blosser, Graham Pierce and Aditya Mathew worked with the engineering students on a project they called “Voting with Joy.” The idea was advanced during an electrical and computer engineering (ECE) capstone class, where engineering students worked to develop a double axis joystick with an integral display for a voting ballot on a computer system. Students Behdad Rashidian from Tehran, Iran; Yangyi Chen from Changsha, China; Tyler Dennis from Olivet, Mich.; Joy Yang from Troy, Mich.; and Graham Pence from Sterling Heights, Mich., were sponsored by the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disability. Their project was presented during Design Day in the College of Engineering in April 2013.

ECE department chair Tim Grotjohn explained that the capstone course is generally taken by students in their last semester at MSU. “The students work in teams of four to six to develop a prototype design for a real-world application or problem,” he said. “The ECE capstone course gives students the opportunity to apply the electronic hardware and computer software knowledge they have acquired in their previous courses. Students work on engineering design and analysis skills, as well as communication and team work skills,” Grotjohn added.

Blosser, a rehab engineer with MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, said it was a delight to see such collaboration and determination, particularly given Michigan State’s deep roots in focusing on inclusivity. Two MSU engineering classes were involved — ECE 480, known as the capstone class, and EGR 100, which is the introductory engineering class, Blosser noted.

“MSU, since the 1930s, has demonstrated to the world the reward, for all of us, of including people with disabilities in all activities,” Blosser said. “While it is a challenge, I can testify that this has been a blessing for me as well as every student and employee who witnesses this struggle.”

Wayne Dyksen, executive director of Design Day, said the project is an excellent example of collaboration and the best that capstone classes have to offer. “Students in our college are surrounded by lessons on how to solve real-world problems. Design Day shows off these highly creative solutions.”

MSU Engineering will host its next Design Day on Friday, Dec. 6, in the Engineering Building.

Engineering students Behdad Rashidian, Yangyi Chen, Tyler Dennis, Joy Yang and Graham Pence helped advance the research for voting independently.