Americans don't know much about state government, survey finds

Most Americans are not aware of how their state government operates or who represents them, researchers say

Jill Rosen
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Americans pay their state governments more than a trillion dollars in taxes annually and trust them to handle issues as important as education and health care, yet citizens know very little about these institutions, a new Johns Hopkins University 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 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 University political scientist Jennifer Bachner, a senior lecturer 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 at Johns Hopkins, 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.

"Most people are not aware of who exactly represents them and the significant decisions made by their state government."
Jennifer Bachner
Senior lecturer

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

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. (Depending on the state, other elected officials might include the state attorney general, comptroller, treasurer, agriculture commissioner, land commissioner, and more)
  • 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 weren'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 said. "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."