Joystick advances independent voting

October 29, 2013, Michigan State University
A voting joystick created at Michigan State University could eventually enable people with dexterity impairments, senior citizens and others to exercise their right to cast ballots independently. Credit: Michigan State University

A voting joystick created at Michigan State University could eventually enable people with dexterity impairments, senior citizens and others 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 7 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 tests an accessible voting joystick developed at Michigan State University and funded by a federal grant. Credit: Michigan State University

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 to develop a prototype joystick, a project they called "Voting with Joy." The research team continued to refine the prototype, coming up with several iterations of the until settling on the device design that was used in testing with people with dexterity impairments.

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.

"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."

Explore further: Convenient Election Day voting centers can improve voter turnout: study

Related Stories

College students vote smarter than expected

October 1, 2009

College students make strategic choices about where to vote, most prefer absentee ballots, and they are especially likely to vote absentee if their homes are in swing states, according to a new Northwestern University study ...

New Jersey email vote rule raises storm of protest

November 5, 2012

New Jersey's decision to allow voters displaced by superstorm Sandy to cast ballots by email has prompted a flood of warnings over security, secrecy and a potential for legal entanglements.

Recommended for you

Researchers find tweeting in cities lower than expected

February 20, 2018

Studying data from Twitter, University of Illinois researchers found that less people tweet per capita from larger cities than in smaller ones, indicating an unexpected trend that has implications in understanding urban pace ...

Augmented reality takes 3-D printing to next level

February 20, 2018

Cornell researchers are taking 3-D printing and 3-D modeling to a new level by using augmented reality (AR) to allow designers to design in physical space while a robotic arm rapidly prints the work.

What do you get when you cross an airplane with a submarine?

February 15, 2018

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed the first unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft that is capable of traveling both through the air and under the water – transitioning repeatedly between sky and sea. ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.