09/08/2004 07:00:00

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While the November 2 election will determine who will occupy the White House for the next four years, it may also make another determination as well: namely, whether Americans will embrace the use of electronic voting devices.

Suffering through the Florida recount debacle in the 2000 presidential election may have raised America's consciousness as to the methods they use to cast votes. Since then, there have been lots of claims made by advocates about how comfortable people are with electronic voting, while opponents have argued just the opposite, that the confidence of all voters is now shaken by the thought of using electronic voting systems. Who's right, who's wrong?

Neither, says R. Michael Alvarez, a professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology, and codirector of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project. "In fact, there appears to be a lot of indecision on the part of voters about the use of electronic voting devices," he says. Alvarez and Thad Hall, assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Utah, and a collaborator with the Voting Project, just completed a study on American registered voters' attitudes about electronic voting devices. "Roughly one-third of the registered voters in our sample stated they had no opinion about any of the arguments for or against the use of electronic voting machines," notes Hall. "This might represent uncertainty about electronic voting machines, a lack of familiarity with them, or some ambivalence about their use."

That leads Alvarez to believe that public opinion is at a critical moment regarding their use. This November, voters in 42 states will use new voting systems, such as touch screen ballots and optical scan machines. As a result, says Alvarez, "The performance of these voting systems on November 2 will play a critical role in determining how American voters feel about using electronic voting technologies in the future." If things run smoothly with few glitches, electronic balloting will probably be here to stay. If there is another glitch-filled election, the controversy will go on.

The telephone survey, funded by the University of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science and Political Science Department, was conducted by International Communications Research between August 25 and 29. It interviewed a nationwide sample of 829 male and female registered voters. (The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.) While roughly one-third of voters in the sample expressed no opinion, a plurality of 38 percent of voters said they are most comfortable with using electronic voting machines to cast their vote, while 30 percent were most comfortable using optical scanning devices.

Not surprisingly, the survey shows a sizeable generation gap in attitudes about electronic voting. More than half of Generation Y registered voters, those between age 18 and 28 and a generation that grew up with computers and video games, expressed comfort with their use. But only a third of those 59 and older were comfortable with the newer electronic voting technology.

A plurality of registered voters in the sample--43 percent--also agreed with the statement that electronic voting equipment is prone to unintentional glitches, while 38 percent agreed that electronic voting increases the potential for fraud.

Other questions broke responses down by race and political affiliation (see http://vote.caltech.edu/Reports/fall04survey.pdf for complete results), but the scientists believe opinions will be strongly set by the November election. "The tenor of the debate over voting technology has been very argumentative over the past two years," says Hall, "but electronic voting hasn't been all bad." On the one hand, he says, there have been many cases of anomalies in the implementation of electronic voting systems that have resulted in votes being lost or problems at polling places. At the same time, there have been cases of electronic voting enfranchising voters, giving certain voters--such as people with disabilities--the chance to cast a secret ballot for the first time, or lowering the number of uncounted ballots. "Much of this debate has played out among media and political elites," says Alvarez, "and our goal was to determine how the public views these issues at this point in time, in particular the tradeoffs between possible increases in accuracy relative to potential increases in either glitches or outright election fraud.

"Overall, I'd say the electorate does seem inclined to favor some form of electronic voting, but it's weak. So it will be interesting to see how the November elections shapes this ongoing argument."

MEDIA CONTACTS: Mark Wheeler Caltech (626) 395-8733 wheel@caltech.edu

Ann Bardsley University of Utah Public Relations (801) 587-9183 abardsley@ucomm.utah.edu

Visit the Caltech media relations web site: http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Marcus Woo