Civic Education

People standing next to a survey

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As the COVID-19 pandemic quickly spread across the country, the ABA pivoted its second annual survey of civic literacy to gauge Americans’ support for online voting, as well as their thoughts on how the government should respond to a national emergency.

The ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy seeks to understand Americans’ legal and civic knowledge and opinions. In its initial poll March 9-13, 1,000 individuals answered 16 multiple-choice questions based mostly on the U.S. naturalization test. Another 800 participated in the updated survey, administered April 7-11.

The results of the survey, which were released Friday to mark Law Day, show that 34% of respondents who were asked in March support voting online rather than at a polling place. When the same question was asked in an updated survey in April, 55% said they support online voting.

Americans also continue to support most First Amendment rights during the pandemic, with 92% opposing the suspension of freedom of speech and 87% opposing the suspension of freedom of the press. However, 54% of respondents favor the government suspending freedom of assembly during a national emergency, like the ongoing public health crisis.

“People who answered the survey seem to be willing to balance the interests of the right of freedom of assembly with the needs of public safety,” said ABA President Judy Perry Martinez, who participated in a virtual Q&A about the ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy results Friday. “What that tells us is that we are understanding as a nation our rights and responsibilities not only to ourselves and to our families, but to our communities, to our neighborhoods and to those with whom we interact on a regular basis.”

Judge Mary Margaret McKeown of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who asked Martinez questions during Friday’s program, contended that the survey showed that many favor expanding voting rights. When asked whether they would permit voting before Election Day, 78% of respondents said yes in March and 72% of respondents said yes in April.

Additionally, 72% support returning the right to vote to felons after they leave prison.

“That tells us several things, No. 1 that people believe that individuals should have the right to vote, including those who have served their time and gone back into our communities,” Martinez said. “And secondly, that all citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote securely and safely and to do so with access as needed.”

McKeown also pointed out that, according to initial findings from the March survey, a majority of Americans correctly identify documents that were key to the founding of our democracy:

  • 89% know that the first three words of the U.S. Constitution are “We the People.”
  • 84% recognize its first 10 amendments as the Bill of Rights.
  • 83% of Americans know the Declaration of Independence announced the 13 colonies’ separation from Great Britain.

“While our democracy doesn’t work perfectly all the time, we know that people cherish the important principles that are set forth in these documents,” Martinez said.

The ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy showed that some survey respondents are confused about the structure of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens:

  • 21% think the secretary of state, and not the speaker of the House of Representatives, would be next in line if the president and vice president can no longer lead the country.
  • 15% incorrectly believe the three branches of government are separate, but the executive branch is superior to the judicial and legislative branches.
  • 18% mistakenly say that paying income tax is a responsibility only for U.S. citizens.

The survey also shows Americans’ confusion over the Electoral College system. While 46% know that votes in the Electoral College are allocated among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. based on their total number of senators and representatives, 33% think electoral votes are based on the number of voters registered in each state.

McKeown, the chair of the ABA Commission on the 19th Amendment, additionally asked Martinez to share her thoughts on respondents’ understanding of the 19th Amendment.

The theme of this year’s Law Day is “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.” And despite other public events commemorating the amendment’s 100th anniversary, only 57% know it guaranteed women the right to vote. Nineteen percent believe it guaranteed equal rights to all, regardless of gender, while another 12% say they are undecided.

“We have more civics education to undertake, certainly,” Martinez said. “What we need to do is make sure that across generations we are telling this story of the suffragists, that we are talking about their legacy, the lessons we learned from their struggles and also from their accomplishments and successes.”

McKeown noted that the ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy also asked for Americans’ opinion on the Equal Rights Amendment, which states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” A strong majority, 83% of respondents, believe it should be ratified and incorporated into the Constitution.

“That’s a powerful statement about what the public believes in,” said Martinez, adding that the ABA encouraged Virginia to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

“What it tells us is that Americans believe in equal rights for women and they know that until those words are in our Constitution, those equal rights will not in fact be believed and achieved by all.”

Visit the ABA 2020 Survey of Civic Literacy website for complete results and other information. Visit the ABA’s Law Day website for more details on other events.

See also:

ABA Journal: “ABA and Law Library of Congress plan virtual Law Day celebration”

ABA Journal: “16% of Americans think Clarence Thomas is chief justice, ABA civics survey finds”