NewswiseNewswise — The voters of “Middletown USA” have cast their ballots about voting preferences, and — like the presidential election — the results are close. By a slight margin voters prefer to use familiar paper ballots and Internet-based polling systems as compared to recently introduced touch-screen electronic kiosks.

In the days leading up to the Nov. 2 elections, researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Media Design (CMD) surveyed 421 voters in Muncie — commonly referred to as Middletown USA due to sociological studies early last century — to determine if they preferred electronic systems over traditional paper ballots to cast their votes.

Despite the growing trend toward the use of electronic kiosks at the polls, both traditional paper ballots and the Internet were preferred by local voters.

The survey identified respondents’ top choices of voting methods:

• Paper ballot 33 %
• Internet 28 %
• Electronic kiosk 16.4 %
• Television (using remote) 5 %
• Cell phone 3.8 %
• Telephone 2.6 %
• Postal service 2.4%
• PDA 1 %
• No favorite 7.8 %

“We asked people to rank their preferences on the basis that all methods of voting were equally secure and anonymous,” said Mike Bloxham, CMD’s director of testing and assessment. “The fact that paper ballots and Internet voting have won out over kiosks that are actually being deployed suggests the importance of familiarity.”

Kiosks were introduced following the problems arising with paper ballots in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. The federal government spent billions of dollars on technology upgrades only to fuel a new controversy over the reliability and quality of electronic voting kiosks.

“Paper ballots are tried and tested, and four out of five of our respondents said they had access to the Web,” Bloxham said. “So concerns arising from unfamiliarity are unlikely to be an issue. However, most people have not encountered electronic kiosks before, and they may be unfamiliar with those devices.”

Regardless of current preferences, however, 75 percent of respondents believed that adopting more of the electronic voting methods will increase voter turnout, he said.

Contrary to conventional wisdom that would suggest younger people are more inclined to use electronic voting alternatives, there were no significant differences of opinion on the basis of age or any other demographic variable, he said.

Bloxham said that while the results are good news to those advocating using the Internet in future elections, there are potential problems to overcome.

“As more electronic channels are adopted for voting, the issues of usability for different devices and screen sizes become more critical,” he said. “Designing a paper ballot that is easy to use is a big enough challenge, but having to design interfaces that work equally well for all voters —whatever the device — multiplies that challenge many times over.”

About the Center for Media Design
The Center for Media Design is an R&D facility focused on the creation, testing and practical application of digital technologies and content for business, classroom, home and community. The center is part of Ball State’s iCommunication initiative, funded by a $20 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

About Muncie, Indiana
For almost 80 years, Muncie and Delaware County, Indiana, have been referred to as “Middletown.” The name comes from landmark sociological studies done by Robert and Helen Lynd in the 1920s and 1930s that cast Muncie as the typical American town (or Middletown). In the intervening decades a series of studies has been undertaken that has built upon the original body of work, the most recent of which was the Middletown Media Studies of media consumption and use, which was also funded by the Center for Media Design.