Most Americans, including a majority who voted for President Reagan, say they would have returned Jimmy Carter's debate briefing papers instead of using them to help Reagan in the 1980 election campaign.

Most people also say they believe the briefing papers incident represents politics as usual in presidential campaigns, but regard it as a serious infraction nevertheless.

A majority says it feels that any current Reagan aides who may have been involved in obtaining and using the Carter material before the October, 1980, presidential debate should be fired or punished in some other way. Three out of four say at least some Reagan aides are trying to cover up their involvement in the matter.

At the same time, three in four say it should not be a major issue in next year's presidential race, but nearly half think it will be.

On returning the papers there is a difference between women and men. Men say by a ratio of 47 to 45 they would have given the papers back. For women the figures are 66 to 25.

These are among the findings of a Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll on the ethical and political questions that have arisen from the Reagan camp's secret acquisition and use of Carter White House and campaign documents three years ago.

A number of current Reagan administration officials, including White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman and White House communications director David R. Gergen, have admitted seeing or using the documents. In addition, other Carter White House material, including National Security Council papers, was passed on to Reagan campaign aides at the time.

The Justice Department and a House subcommittee are now looking into the matter.

In all, 57 percent of those interviewed in the Post-ABC News poll said that, had they been campaign workers when such documents became available, they would have returned them, and 34 percent said they would have used them to help prepare their own candidate.

Citizens are sharply divided along partisan lines in the way they view the matter, with many Republicans tending to regard the revelations and inquiry as political efforts to damage Reagan, and with Democrats tending to say they view the matter more seriously.

That partisan split tempers views on almost all issues stemming from the briefing papers affair. For example, Republicans and Democrats hold extremely different views on what the press is doing, or should be doing, in its coverage of the matter.

Overall, 39 percent of those interviewed say the news media are doing too little investigating of the briefing papers incident, 37 percent say the news media are doing too much investigating, and 14 percent say the news media are looking into it just about the way they should.

But, by more than a 2-to-1 ratio, Republicans who were polled say the press is investigating too much--and, by just under 2 to 1, Democrats say the press is not investigating enough.

As for independent voters, the split is right down the middle: 38 percent say the news media are not investigating the matter enough, 37 percent say the news media are investigating too much and 14 percent say the coverage is just about right.

The poll, conducted from July 28 to Aug. 1, found keen differences in outlook between men and women, and lesser differences according to social status. People with lower incomes and less education are more likely to say they would have returned the documents than are those at higher income levels and those with more education.

Citizens are also divided on just how much they say Reagan was aided by his aides' having obtained Carter's debate plans. Eighteen percent say Reagan was helped a great deal in the debate by having them, 37 percent say he was helped some, 21 percent say he was not helped very much and 18 percent say he was not helped at all.

There is much less division, however, on whether Reagan aides are being forthright in their accounts of what happened. Fifteen percent say they think administration officials are being truthful about their involvement in getting and using the Carter debate materials; 74 percent say some administration officials are covering up.