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May 01, 2024

The link between civics literacy and our threatened democracy

by ABA President Mary Smith

A new survey from the American Bar Association shows that most Americans are pessimistic about our nation’s democracy and are worried about the upcoming elections. It is yet another reminder of the fragility of our democratic system at this perilous time in our nation’s history.

These results are revealed in the annual 2024 ABA Survey of Civic Literacy, released as part of the ABA’s celebration of Law Day, which has been observed on May 1 since 1958. The survey was first implemented five years ago, and is designed to gauge people’s knowledge of how government works, and seeks their opinions about timely topics concerning government.

This year, we asked a series of questions on the state of democracy in the United States. The results are sobering: 74% of respondents believe our democracy is weaker than it was five years ago.

When respondents were asked what they think is the primary cause of this weakened democracy, nearly a third (31%) said the biggest problem is disinformation and misinformation, and nearly another third (29%) blamed political parties.

Election integrity is also a significant concern. Make no mistake, Americans value their elections. The survey asked, “What do you think is the most important part of a democratic government?” Exactly half said free and fair elections. Nothing else came close.

But the public’s belief in the importance of elections as fundamental to democracy is undercut by fears regarding the next election. A majority of respondents (55%) reported that they are worried about the integrity of the November general election. More than a third (36%) said their primary concern is that there will be election subversion, that is, meddling with the vote-counting process. Another 21% said voter suppression — discouraging or preventing certain groups of people from voting — is their biggest concern. Less than a quarter (23%) said their biggest concern is voter fraud — people voting more than once or ineligible people voting.

The results also revealed that the public recognizes the important connection between the protection of democracy and civics literacy. When asked who should be primarily responsible for safeguarding our democracy, the most popular response was “the general public,” cited by 37%. Ironically, however, respondents held a dim view of the public’s knowledge on the topic. Nearly two-thirds reported that the public was “not very informed” (50%) or “not at all informed” (13%) about how democracy works.

This key takeaway from the survey demonstrates that we have a lot of work ahead to repair the public’s fears about democracy and election integrity. The survey suggests that an important place to start is to increase civics literacy.

Repairing American democracy has been a central focus of my ABA presidency. Last August, we created the nonpartisan ABA Task Force for American Democracy, which is examining ways to ensure the survival of our nation’s democracy. Through the important work of the Task Force, we are focusing directly on restoring public confidence in the American election system – a system that, notwithstanding efforts to undermine its integrity, has been proven time and again to be safe and secure.

And through the work of the Advisory Commission to the Task Force, we are partnering with bar associations across the country to develop programming to address the legal profession’s special responsibility to fight for democracy and rule of law.  

The ABA is stepping up because lawyers must engage in the cause of our lifetime. This survey reveals worrisome fractures in the public’s perception of our democracy, and is consistent with other important data on this topic. It is clear that Americans have grave doubts about the future of the many freedoms we have spent centuries fighting to achieve. 

As the largest voluntary organization of lawyers in the country, the ABA plans to lead on this issue until our democracy is secured. We ask all lawyers across the country to join us, as leaders in their communities, their states, and nationally. Every one of us took an oath to uphold the rule of law. Now is the time to ensure we are living up to that promise.

Mary Smith is president of the American Bar Association and vice chair of the VENG Group, a national consulting firm.