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New Annenberg Survey Asks: “How Well Do Americans Understand the Constitution?”

At a press conference at the National Constitution Center on Friday, September 16, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor will release an Annenberg Public Policy Center sponsored report titled “The Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools,” recommending actions that the federal, state, and local governments, as well as families and civic organizations, ought to take to increase students’ knowledge of and participation in our democratic system. (Click here for a copy of the report.)

[There are more up-to-date findings from this annual survey. See this page for the most recent findings.]

As America commemorates the 224th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution (September 17, 1787), a national survey of 1,230 adults (margin of error for the full sample is +/-3.3%) conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania confirms the need for the kind of national effort outlined in the report. Specifically:

  • Just 38% could name all three branches of the U.S. government: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A third (33%) are unable to correctly name any of the branches.
    • Among those who felt they understood the purpose and role of the three branches of government either very or somewhat well, only 50% could name all three.
  • On presidential veto powers, barely half of Americans (51%) know that a two-thirds majority vote by Congress is needed to overturn a presidential veto.
  • 91% of Americans know that the U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. However:
    • Only 37% know that a citizen cannot appeal a Supreme Court decision to the Federal Court of Appeals.
    • 62% of Americans know that the U.S. Supreme Court carries the responsibility for determining the constitutionality of a law.
  • Over the years there have been many 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, but fewer than half of Americans (48%) know that such decisions have the same effect as 9-0 ones.
  • 54% are aware that Supreme Court justices usually announce their decisions in writing.
  • Even after taking the effects of level of education into account, our analysis shows that taking a civics or government course in high school or college predicts civics knowledge.

“Since knowing how democracy works predicts civic participation and support for protecting our system of government, these results are worrisome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). “The nation should be troubled by the extent to which civic education is downplayed in its schools.”

Americans are not as knowledgeable as one might assume about control of the House and Senate, and about the identity of the Chief Justice of the United States:

  • More Americans know that the Republicans hold the majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (55%) than know that the Democrats hold the majority of seats in the U.S. Senate (42%).
  • 15% correctly named John Roberts as Chief Justice, while almost twice as many (27%) correctly named Randy Jackson as a judge on American Idol.

How well did citizens perform on questions the government includes in its official U.S. citizenship test? We put several of those questions on our survey and found mixed results:

  • 78% know that the first ten amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights.
  • 76% know that the Declaration of Independence established our independence from Great Britain.
  • 42% of Americans know that serving on a jury is a duty exclusively for United States citizens.
  • Only 13% of Americans know that the Constitution was signed in 1787. The majority (55%) said it was signed in 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed.

“Constitution Day celebrates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. It is an appropriate day to highlight the commitment not only to strengthen civics education in schools, but to emphasize the importance of becoming engaged in one’s community and participating in our democracy,” added Ken Winneg, Managing Director of Survey Research at APPC.
Read the full press release