A new national study shows that many Americans are still forming opinions about electronic voting machines, even while they want to see a change from punch card ballots.

Older Americans are more prone to feel uncomfortable with electronic machines than their younger counterparts, according to the study conducted by the University of Utah's College of Social and Behavioral Science. The study included a nationwide survey of 829 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.

More than a third of the respondents did not have an opinion about whether electronic voting machines are more accurate, raise the potential for fraud or have a greater chance for unintentional errors when compared to punch card ballots. That ambiguity may reflect the general public's lack of knowledge about the issues surrounding the electronic machines, especially for people who live in areas that have not used them yet, said Thad Hall, an assistant professor of political science at the U. who helped conduct the study.

"This might represent uncertainty about electronic voting machines, a lack of familiarity with them, or some ambivalence about their use," Hall said.

Hall said the college plans to conduct a study following the Nov. 2 general election, when more voters will have cast their ballots electronically. Should anything go wrong — whether with electronic machines, punch cards, lever or any other type of voting method — people will hear about it and could have their opinions significantly swayed, he said.

Survey respondents, while not strongly opinionated about the potential benefits or pitfalls of electronic machines, still favored machines to punch card ballots by a more than 2-to-1 margin — 38 percent to 18 percent. Hall said that he points to the problems in 2000, especially in Florida, for the lack of enthusiasm for punch card ballots.

"That's what can happen when there's intense media coverage," Hall said. "Studies since 2000 have also shown that there are potential problems with punch cards."

In Utah, more people tend to support punch card ballots because they are familiar with them and the state has not had any problems, said Amy Naccarato, state elections director.

"We've had good success in Utah with the punch cards, and it's always been reliable here," Naccarato said. "But we all remember Florida."

Regardless of the state's success with the punch cards, they will be replaced by the 2006 election. As part of the federal Help America Vote Act, the state is required to replace the old system with new voting machines, and is currently reviewing bids from two companies that supply the machines.

Michael Alvarez, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who worked on the study with Hall, said in a news release that they did the study because "much of the debate has played out among media and political elites" and they wanted to see if the general public had been swayed either way. In general, they haven't, although he expects that numbers will change after the general election.

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

Kathy Dopp, co-founder of Utah Count Votes, a group which is pushing for more study or the machines to ensure better security, said that the study actually demonstrates how uninformed the general public is about the issue.

"For the most part, people are not very knowledgeable about the dangers of electronic voting systems," Dopp said. "We need to do a lot more education."


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com