An introduction to participatory voting—Part 3: Public, semi-anonymous, and anonymous voting

Students_raising_hands_11173204566_245f234493_kIn the first two parts of this series on participatory voting at events, I introduced the concept and compared low-tech and high-tech approaches. Now, let’s explore an issue that should (but often doesn’t) determine the specific voting methods we choose: knowledge about how other participants have voted.

High-tech methods typically default to anonymous voting: i.e. we have no information on anyone’s individual vote. Audience response systems (ARSs) — which combine an audience voting method such as a custom handheld device, personal cell phone/smartphone, personal computer, etc. with a matched receiver and software that processes and displays responses — are so commonly used to provide anonymous voting at meetings today that many event planners and attendees are unaware that public voting is a simple and, in many cases, more useful alternative.

As you might expect, public voting methods allow a group to see the individuals who have voted and how they voted. (For a list of anonymous and public participatory voting techniques, see Part 2 of this series.)

In Part 1 of this series, I explained why using public voting techniques is key to creating truly participatory voting:

“Allowing participants to discover those who agree or disagree with them or share their experience efficiently facilitates valuable connections between participants in ways unlikely to occur during traditional meetings. Giving group members opportunities to harness these techniques for their own discoveries about the group can further increase engagement in the group’s purpose.”

It’s also worth noting that public voting offers follow-up opportunities to uncover group resources, interest, and commitment on specific action items from individual participants.

Anonymous voting informs us about a group’s collective opinion but hides individual opinions. As mentioned in Part 2, anonymous voting is certainly appropriate when we are exploring deeply personal or potentially embarrassing questions: e.g. “Who has or has had a sexually transmitted disease?” But how often is this necessary? In my experience, the vast majority of questions asked of a group during meeting sessions are not sensitive, and there is real value in participants’ discovery of others with like-minded and opposing views via public voting.

Some argue that anonymous voting is necessary to avoid a bandwagon effect, where people vote in a particular way because other people are doing so, rather than expressing their own opinion. Although no one can divine participants’ true beliefs, a facilitator who creates a safe environment for individuals to express any opinion will minimize groupthink during participatory voting.

For example, when I facilitate The Solution Room, a session that provides just-in-time peer support and answers to a pressing professional challenge, I ask participants to place themselves in the room to show how risky it feels to share the challenge they have chosen. As I do so, I say “I’ve had challenges where I’d be standing over here, and others where I’d be standing over there.” Sharing my experience that any position along the riskiness spectrum might be appropriate for me helps to support and legitimize each participant’s choice.

Finally, there’s a form of participatory voting I call semi-anonymous that’s essentially but not perfectly anonymous. Two common examples are dot voting (described in detail in Chapter 49 of The Power of Participation: Creating Conferences That Deliver Learning, Connection, Engagement, and Action) and crowdsourcing techniques involving group posting of written notes on walls or tables. Although in principle, continuously spying on an individual participant could allow observation of specific votes, such surveillance would be pretty obvious, impracticable for multiple participants, and is realistically unlikely to occur in practice.

The next time you need to determine a group’s response to a question, take a moment to consider whether anonymous voting is really necessary. In the majority of cases you’ll find that public voting is a better choice, allowing participants to learn more about each other while setting the stage for a deeper look at the issues uncovered.

Photo attribution: Flickr user gpforeducation