Public Involvement Techniques
4.C.h - Handheld/Instant
What is handheld/instant voting?
Handheld/instant voting is a means by which participants may
express a preference for an issue or idea under consideration
and have their preferences recorded, usually anonymously and instantaneously.
In typical public involvement practice for example, participants
are provided a paper feedback form or ballot to indicate a preference
for one or more alternatives of a plan or project. These paper ballots
are collected and tallied at a later time with the summary results
usually shared with the public through a newsletter, report, website
posting, or other means. Improvements in technology allow for more
advanced tally techniques, such as an optical scanner, to automate
and reduce tabulation errors. More recent technical advances have
allowed participants the opportunity to cast their preferences via
handheld devices, sometimes using wireless communication systems
at a specially arranged location. Some companies are beginning to
develop Internet-based instantaneous voting approaches, which allow
for a decentralized collection of votes. Wireless companies with
their cellular phones or PDAs now allow mobile users to connect
to the Internet or E-mail providers and cast preferences for products
The handheld/instant voting technique is not widespread,
primarily due to cost, but may offer a dramatic improvement in the
ability of agencies to collect public preference, especially if
electronic voting systems are employed in other forms of democratic
processes, such as local, state, or federal elections. Past efforts
have been attempted in on-line voting (Cube system tried in Columbus,
Ohio during the mid-1970's), but did not success due to technical
awkwardness, lack of trust in an accurate vote tally, and minimal
social acceptance of this form of democracy.
Why is it useful?
The advantages of the direct-recording electronic systems,
where the participant (voter) does not fill out a paper ballot and
simply touches a screen or pushes buttons, is that there is no voter
intent problem (was a ballot marked correctly), the preferences
are captured quickly, and physical presence at a public involvement
site/event is not required, only some form of electronic access
and validation of the voter. In addition, handheld voting allows
for immediate feedback and quick iterations and refinements. Some
experts believe the electronic voting systems could enhance the
democratic process by enabling referendums or preference surveys
to be conducted more often and at less cost. Some studies have indicated
the lack of public involvement may be due to the inconvenience of
going to the public involvement site, which would be overcome with
a handheld/instant or electronic voting system. On the other hand,
despite elaborate software safeguards against hackers and fraud,
even electronic voting techniques must first gain enough public
trust in the techniques security for them to be effective. Most
tests so far have involved computers in public buildings with access
monitored by vote monitors.
Does it have special uses?
Handheld/instant voting is useful when seeking preferences quickly
from an audience. However, care must be taken to understand
the nature of the voting group so that results are carefully analyzed
and inferences correctly drawn about preferences for more general
populations or groups.
Who participates? And how?
Participants in handheld/instant voting techniques may be selected
to be representative of a special subpopulation (e.g., a community-based
survey) or representative of the more general population (urban,
suburban, rural communities in a metropolitan area across all demographic
characteristics). At other times, there maybe no pre-selection or
screening of voters and those who have access to the devices or
voting sites are allowed to cast a preference. The choice of technique
and who participates depends on the objectives of the public involvement
A typical use of handheld/instant voting involves having the
audience express preferences to several scenarios. They press
buttons corresponding to questions associated with the scenario,
using a preference scale to respond to a question, e.g., high to
low, like to dislike, one to five, etc. The questions have been
carefully selected and sequenced to allow analysts to infer preferences
and/or special interests among the scenarios and discussion topics.
From the voting, reports may be provided instantaneously or only
votes collected instantaneously, with the results presented at a
later time through a pre-arranged feedback mechanism. More sophisticated
methods allow for the real-time adjustment of subsequent scenarios
based on the immediate responses of voters.
Other types of handheld/instant voting techniques would allow
the public to express preferences through touch screens on kiosks
or similar computer-aided devices. The preference results would
typically be downloaded to a central tally location periodically
(hourly, daily, etc.) depending on the polling location of the kiosk,
perceived interest in the topic, and cost.
In any case, issues of voter fraud, double counting, and ease
of access will need to be addressed. Some techniques use identifying
numbers, letters, or similar techniques.
How do agencies use the output?
The results are used in a manner similar to those of conducting
a survey or preference expression technique. In general, the
output allows for a means of rapidly getting public (or some subpopulation's)
reaction to a project or plan, obtaining community preferences for
selected scenarios, helping to educate the public about a particular
project or plan, and encouraging participation through the fundamental
democratic principle of voting.
What are the costs?
Handheld/instant voting systems are expensive, costing anywhere
from a few thousand dollars up to several thousand dollars for each
portable (wireless) unit. Vendors do provide rental systems, but
the costs usually can be several hundred dollars per user, depending
on the intended use, number of voters, duration of the rental, and
the complexity of the survey. Technology advances will help drive
these costs lower.
How is it used with other techniques?
Handheld/instant voting can be used with other parts of the
project or plan development cycle to improve the agency's understanding
of community preferences. Whenever the public involvement process
calls for the expression by the public of a preference for an idea,
options, or alternative, handheld/instant voting is a candidate
What are the drawbacks?
Drawbacks of the handheld/instant voting technique include:
- Potentially high initial cost or rental cost;
- Only takes the opinions of those voting, which may cause for
skewed interpretation of preferences and results; and
- Participants may be reluctant to use the devices for fear of
new technology, accuracy, anonymity, or similar factors.
When is it used most effectively?
When a rapid response of preferences is required.
For further information:
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).