Knowledge of how government works is declining, prompting talk of civics education, voter tests
When George Nethercutt ran for Congress in 1994, he pulled off the ultimate upset and beat Tom Foley, the sitting U.S. speaker of the House. The win was the most significant in a year when Nethercutt and other Republicans wrested control of the House from Democrats.
But some Eastern Washington voters were in for a surprise when they realized their new congressman didn’t automatically become speaker.
“Exit polls showed that many thought they’d elected a new speaker of the House,” said former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. “They simply had no idea how the system worked.”
And four years ago, about 93 million eligible American citizens did not vote in the presidential election. The reasons may be many, yet dozens of national studies compiled over the past 15 years have concluded the same thing that an evening at a city council meeting makes obvious: People know very little about how their government works.
In 2015, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni surveyed a large group of college graduates and citizens using questions from standard high school civics curriculum. The results? “Abysmal.”
About 20 percent of respondents correctly identified James Madison as the Father of the Constitution.
Forty percent did not know that Congress can declare war.
Fewer than half of the college graduates surveyed knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the Senate.
And 9.6 percent of college graduates agreed that Judith Sheindlin – of reality TV show “Judge Judy” fame – was on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Any elected official has stories of how confused constituents and other legislators can be.
Gregoire said she had to explain thousands of times that the governor is not in charge of K-12 education and no, she couldn’t just spend the gas tax on anything she wanted to.
“People believe that when you are governor you are in charge of everything. You are not,” Gregoire said.
Sometimes it’s even tricky to look like the governor.
Former state Rep. Chris Marr was in office while Gary Locke was governor.
“I’m an Asian male, the governor is an Asian male, we are in Olympia, so I must be the governor,” said Marr. “That says a lot about what people know.”
Marr also said people back in Spokane kept asking him how things were going in Washington, D.C.
“They didn’t realize I went to work in Olympia,” Marr said.
He routinely got calls from families trying to get a relative out of prison or who’d lost their low-income housing.
“They really thought we could call the Department of Corrections and tell them what to do,” Marr said. “Some never see the relevance of government until they really need something.”
People still stop Nethercutt in the street and ask if it’s bad that they don’t vote because they don’t like either candidate.
His short answer is always that yes, everyone should vote, but lately he’s had second thoughts.
“I’m beginning to think there should be a test before people are allowed to vote,” Nethercutt said. “I know I’m going to get in trouble for saying that. But why are we giving away the franchise to people who know nothing about it?”
The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute is working to make its Civic Education Initiative the standard of civic testing in all states. The initiative would require all high school students to pass “the immigration test” in order to graduate from high school.
There are 100 questions on the U.S. Naturalization test, and immigration officials may ask as many as 10. Once an applicant has six correct answers, they pass.
Lucian Spataro, chief academic officer at the Joe Foss Institute, said his organization is pushing for a higher standard than the immigration test.
“We want students to pass all 100 questions,” Spataro said, “by getting 60 or 70 percent right.”
Spataro said 14 states, including Idaho, have adopted the model test, which they can customize with state-specific questions.
More civics education is one thing, but the idea of a “voting test” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many. It sounds too close to the literacy tests given to black voters as late as the 1960s.
“I don’t think there should be a test” in order to vote, Gregoire said. “We would create another barrier if we did that.”
Marr said he doesn’t believe in a test either, but he does wonder if the movement to make it easier to vote by mail-in ballot and pre-registration means that people don’t take voting seriously.
“Shouldn’t you have to put some shoe leather into voting?” Marr said. “I fear that by making it super easy you are going to engage more and more people who have less of a stake in the outcome.”
He cautioned against politicians sounding too elitist and talking down to constituents who may not know much about the political system.
“I still feel like you should know what happens in Olympia and what happens in Washington, D.C.,” Marr said. “And you should know basics like a bill doesn’t become law until it’s signed by the governor.”
University High School civics teacher and self-proclaimed political wonk Paul Schneider said a voting test would exclude people, running counter to the American political model of expansion and inclusion.
“First you had to be male, a landowner, white and Christian to vote,” Schneider said. “Then we dropped the landowner part, and the Christian part, and then the white part and finally the male part.”
Schneider said very contentious elections, like the one that culminates Tuesday, tend to polarize people further and confuse some on how much power a president actually has.
“People don’t understand that presidents run on promises – whatever they want to achieve has to get through Congress,” Schneider said.
He added that people mistake the American system – with its checks and balances divided between Congress, the president and the Supreme Court – with parliamentarian systems where a president has much more power.
“The president is very visible in our system but can’t do much on his own,” Schneider said.
And the civics teacher has hope. Of course he wishes everyone was as interested in politics and history as he is, but overall, he said, Americans tend to make good choices in elections.
“We may not want to do the hard work studying, but we love the horse race, we love the competition,” Schneider said. “That’s a big reason for why we vote.”