Futurity

Most Americans are clueless about state government. You?

Does your state have a constitution? Is being a state legislator a full-time job where you live? Most Americans know remarkably little about their state government.

Americans trust their state governments to handle issues as important as education and health care and pay them more than a trillion dollars in taxes annually. And yet, they know very little about state government, a new survey finds.

Almost half of those surveyed couldn’t say what their state spent the most on; even fewer knew which state issues were most controversial. Fewer than 20 percent could name their state legislators. A third couldn’t even name their governor.

“Most people say they like their state leaders, and a large majority even remembers learning about state government in school,” says political scientist Jennifer Bachner, a senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and one of the researchers. “Despite this, most people are not aware of who exactly represents them and the significant decisions made by their state government.”

Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science, surveyed 1,500 people in the United States this fall. With states collecting an estimated $1.7 trillion in tax dollars and spending about $1.9 trillion on everything from education to health care, they wanted to find out how much Americans actually knew about this level of government.

“Everything from driving a car to opening a business puts Americans into contact with their state governments. It’s a bit discouraging to discover how little citizens know about the states that govern them,” says Ginsberg, who expects the findings will be the basis for a book.

The survey reveals:

  • Most respondents didn’t know if being a state legislator was a full-time job.
  • Nearly a third of respondents didn’t know which state officials they voted for beyond governor, lieutenant governor and members of the legislature. (Depending on the state, other elected officials might include the state attorney general, comptroller, treasurer, agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, etc.)
  • Most people surveyed had no idea if the chief judge of the state’s highest court is elected or appointed.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state had a constitution.
  • About half couldn’t say if their state had a one or two-house legislature.
  • More than half didn’t know who came up with the boundaries of legislative districts.
  • About 25 percent didn’t know who ran elections.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state allowed ballot initiatives.
  • About a third didn’t know if absentee voting was an option.
  • More than half didn’t know if their state ever held special elections.
  • About 75 percent didn’t know if their state had special purpose districts.
  • About a quarter of respondents wasn’t sure if it was federal or state government that was mostly in charge of law enforcement.
  • Thirty percent didn’t know who made zoning laws.

But despite not knowing much about state government, Americans seem to be content with it.

They tend to like their governors and feel their state economy is in good shape. Most of them say they trust state government to handle problems. Nearly 70 percent think their state government does a better job than the federal government.

“One reason citizens know so little is lack of media coverage of state affairs,” Ginsberg says. “The media focus on Washington, even though essential services like law enforcement and education are handled by the states. A lack of attention could lead not just to an uninformed public, but to an environment where special interest politics and corruption flourish.”

For the October 2018 survey, the researchers contracted with Qualtrics. They surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,500 individuals via the internet with a 3 percent margin of error.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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