June 03, 2019

Our Civics IQ: ABA survey demonstrates people need better understanding of our democracy

Bob Carlson

Democracy is not a spectator sport, but to participate, you need to know the rules. The American Bar Association believes all people in the United States should understand their rights and responsibilities for the country to function properly.

This year, we commissioned a survey—the ABA Survey of Civic Literacy—that asked 1,000 adults in the United States 17 questions about the law, the U.S. Constitution and the rights of both citizens and noncitizens. Because the survey was done in conjunction with Law Day 2019, which has a theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society,” we also asked respondents their opinion about the First Amendment and how it applies to everyday life.

The survey results were telling. While a majority answered the basic multiple-choice questions correctly, their responses reveal troubling gaps.

For instance, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

One in 10 thinks the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states. Almost 1 in 5 believes the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.

The survey reveals significant confusion about the rights and responsibilities of citizens compared to noncitizens. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, and 30 percent think that noncitizens are not entitled to the right of freedom of speech. More than 1 in 5 think only citizens must pay taxes, and 1 in 10 thinks only citizens must obey the law.

There is also confusion about the First Amendment. More than half of those surveyed—55 percent—know that the right to vote is not part of the First Amendment. But 18 percent think freedom of the press isn’t part of the amendment, and another 18 percent think the right to peaceably assemble isn’t covered by it.

The survey pulled 15 of its questions from the pool of 100 possible questions on the U.S. Naturalization test that can be asked of those seeking U.S. citizenship. Only 5 percent of respondents answered all 15 correctly. Nobody surveyed correctly answered all 17 knowledge questions.

Improving our nation’s efforts at civics education is especially important for the younger members of society, who did worse on the survey than their older counterparts. While 79 percent of those age 45 and older can identify the president as commander in chief, only two-thirds of those 18 to 44 can. And while 67 percent of those 45 and older know the speaker of the house would become president if the president and vice president could no longer serve, just over half of those 18 to 44 know this line of succession.

A bright spot in the survey was the strong support for the First Amendment. Despite our divisive arguments at times over government and its power, 81 percent agree that people should be able to publicly criticize the president or any other government leader; 80 percent believe individuals or groups should have the right to request government records or information; and 75 percent say government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests.

Go to ambar.org/civicsurvey to read the full survey and report.

Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance. Moving forward, the ABA Division for Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results to reacquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game.

Follow President Carlson on Twitter @ABAPresident or email abapresident@americanbar.org.

This President's Message was published in the June 2019 ABA Journal.