Civics Survey: 1 In 5 Americans Can’t Name Single Branch Of U.S. Government

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PHILADELPHIA — Americans appear to be improving in their basic knowledge of the federal government, an annual survey shows. Yet despite the progress, one in five adults still can’t name even one of the three branches of government.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, a study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, found good news and bad news when it comes to Americans’ knowledge of how their government functions.

Among the good news: According to the survey, which conducted interviews with 1,104 adults, the American public knows more now about the Constitution and the concept of the separation of powers than in the previous five years. The survey found more adults responding correctly to questions about constitutional rights and other civics concepts.

Data from the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey (2019)

The bad news is that only about 39% of adults can correctly name the three branches of United States government (executive, legislative, and judicial, in case you were wondering). While this is the highest mark in the last five years, it still leaves room for improvement. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed — about 22% — couldn’t name a single governmental branch. Still, that’s markedly better than the previous two years when a third of respondents were stumped on the same question.

Meanwhile, 25% of respondents were able to name one branch, and 14% remembered only two.

The survey suggested a link between high school civics or government classes and civics knowledge. Those surveyed who said they took high school civics were more likely to know the answers to six different “knowledge” questions, including naming the branches of government. Those who said they are high consumers of print, television, or online news were also more likely to answer civics questions correctly.

“While this marks an improvement, the overall results remain dismal,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, statement. “A quarter of U.S. adults can name only one of the three branches of government and more than a fifth can’t name any. The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

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Other questions on the survey also resulted in improved scores. About six in ten participants (59%) correctly marked that a 5-4 ruling on a case by the U.S. Supreme Court meant that the decision was the law and must be followed, the highest score for that questions among the seven times it’s been asked since 2007. About six in ten also knew that should the Supreme Court and president disagree on whether an action by the president was constitutional, the burden falls on the court to make the final call.

A staggering 83% also knew it was accurate to say that the Supreme Court has held that a citizen has a constitutional right to own a handgun.

And when asked whether illegal immigrants had any rights under the Constitution, 55% correctly noted that they indeed had some rights. On the flip side, 40% answered incorrectly — but researchers note the scores were flipped from 2017, when most people got it wrong.

When it came to control of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, 55% correctly answered that Democrats have majority in the House, while 61% knew Republicans control the senate. A quarter of respondents did not know or were unsure for both questions.

The survey will be released for Constitution Day, September 17, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania.

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