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Public Involvement Techniques

Foreward  |   Table of Contents
Chapter 1  |   Chapter 2  |   Chapter 3  |   Chapter 4  |   Index of Techniques

4. Using Special Techniques to Enhance Participationskip page navigation

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4.C - Finding New Ways to Communicate
4.C.a - Interactive Television
4.C.b - Teleconferencing
4.C.c - Interactive Video Displays and Kiosks
4.C.d - Visualization Techniques
4.C.e - Mapping Through Geographic Information Systems
4.C.f - 3D Visualization
4.C.g - Visual Preference Surveys
4.C.h - Handheld Instant Voting
4.C.i - Plan or Text Markup Software
4.C.j - Remote Sensing Applications

4. Introduction

4.C.h - Handheld/Instant Voting

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 and services.

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 process.

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 technique.

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:

Characteristics of a good electronic voting system
The case of electronic voting
Transportation Blueprint for the 21st Century: MTC Forum Involving Electronic Voting
Internet Voting Technology Alliance

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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle Noch at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls at FTA (202-366-5362).

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