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Government & Politics

Don’t Know Much About…

Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

This counts as either very good news for state officials – if they are trying to elude public scrutiny – or bad news: A survey conducted by political scientists at Johns Hopkins University found that Americans don’t know much about their state governments.

Almost half of those surveyed couldn’t say what their state spent the most on and 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,” said Johns Hopkins political scientist Jennifer Bachner, one of the researchers and director of the Government Analytics program. “Despite this, most people are not aware of who exactly represents them and the significant decisions made by their state government.”

Fifteen hundred Americans took Hopkins’ online survey on state government in October. The poll, which had a 3-point margin of error, was released earlier this month.

The survey revealed:

  • 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.
  • 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 in their states.
  • 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 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, the survey found – in fact, almost 70 percent think their state government is doing a better job than the federal government.

The JHU political scientists concluded that one of the reasons why voters don’t know much about their state government is that media coverage of statehouses is so limited.

“One reason citizens know so little is lack of media coverage of state affairs,” said one of the researchers, Benjamin Ginsberg. “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.”

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Don’t Know Much About…