In a video clip, Keegan Jauch struggles to stuff a disorganized pile of ballots into a plastic bag.
Jauch was showing his fellow UW-Rock County engineering students the challenge poll workers face on election nights. Ballots fed into voting machines drop into haphazard piles, and poll workers can spend up to 45 minutes shuffling and restacking them so they fit into bags, Janesville Clerk/Treasurer Dave Godek said.
“Very painful to watch,” Jauch said Thursday, joking about his efforts.
Jauch and his classmates were tasked with solving a real-world problem: How can poll workers more neatly stack and organize ballots fed into voting machines?
When Godek realized the problem after the 2016 presidential election, he reached out to John Klinger, a UW-Rock County professor, who challenged his students to design ways to solve the dilemma.
Different groups of students came up with similar solutions. The teams constructed boxes of different designs and materials with the goal of catching ballots as they fell into neat piles.
Godek hopes to test a couple of them at upcoming elections.
Members of one group mentioned that the average poll worker is 78 years old. They said an older person can suffer back strain from having to constantly bend over to grab ballots and restack them.
“… To bend over and pull ballots out of this machine is difficult enough for people my age. It’s a hassle to organize them. And so for older folks, it is really a challenge,” Godek said.
The first group’s solution was a box that sat up a bit higher than the bottom of the machine. A sliding drawer easily allows poll workers to gather ballots stacked neatly inside.
An open gap at the front of the drawer lets them pull out stacks of ballots without having to awkwardly reach into the drawer to get them.
Several other groups offered similar designs.
Another team designed a bin that fits snugly in the voting machine, so poll workers don’t have to struggle to line it up with where the ballots fall from above. It features a handle, so workers can pull out the entire device rather than stacks of ballots.
“The main thing we were going for was simplicity,” explained Sam Sheridan, one of the designers.
Mitchell Schaefer said the box cost $5 to $10 to make and weighs about 15 pounds. If mass-produced, the handle could be rounded to make it more comfortable, and the device could be made of plastic so it’s even lighter.
Sheridan joked they could even decorate the bins with political decals.
All five groups that presented designs showed pictures, videos and live demonstrations of how their designs worked. They explained their processes, the problems they encountered and how they solved them.
Godek was impressed.
“I can tell you that any of those solutions is far better than what we’re currently doing,” he said. “I’m very impressed with the work I saw today.”
Klinger, the professor, said he’s glad his students got to work on a real problem.
“They kind of take it to heart,” he said. “They know that someone’s going to come in and evaluate other than me, so it’s more than just a grade for them; it’s also a sense of pride that they get. They want to know that their project’s going to be used.”
The community and the university benefit from such relationships. It’s part of the university’s mission to work with the city, Klinger said.
“I hope that this continues,” he said.