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UMass: U.S. scores low on voter know-how

Amherst - America ranks 139th out of 172 democracies for voter turnout, according to a new study prepared by Commonwealth College students at the University of Massachusetts.

The study was presented by nine Commonwealth College students Tuesday to several legislators at the Statehouse, including Se. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst.

Students found, through a series of projects, that Massachusetts' civic health "needs improvement" when it comes to local voter turnout, electoral competitiveness, political knowledge, civic education and service learning.

According to data compiled for voter turnout in 172 democracies from 1945 to 1998, the United States ranked 139th.

The report also noted:

  • Massachusetts voter turnout has declined at every electoral level since 1960, but the drop has been especially steep for local elections. In 1960, 23 percent of the population typically voted in local elections. By 2000, the figure declined to 14 percent.
  • Competition has declined for elected positions. In 1952, 10 percent of the seats in the state Legislature went uncontested. By 2002, the number of uncontested Legislative positions had risen to 62 percent.

In a separate survey of 375 UMass students from introductory science and political science classes, they found students know very little about how government works.

For instance, when given a multiple-choice question, only 30 percent could identify the biggest expense of a typical Massachusetts town (education); only 20 percent knew that the two most costly items in the state budget are education and health care; and only 8 percent knew that the state budget is approximately $22 billion to $23 billion.

According to Political Science Professor Michael Hannahan, several believed that the “Big Dig” central artery tunnel project in Boston was the biggest budget expense.

Ironically, 97 percent knew that Arnold Schwarzegger is governor of California, but only 84 percent knew that Mitt Romney is governor of Massachusetts. However, of the students who are state residents, at least 90 percent know Romney is the governor, Hannahan said.

Hannahan said he doesn't believe these findings apply only to UMass students but reflect the general population, which knows very little about how the government works "even though their lives are really influenced by government spending."

The initiative also found that frequent newspaper readers "perform better on every civic measure" compared to frequent TV watchers, that readers are more likely to vote and to consider themselves informed. "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central was the primary source of TV news for most of the students surveyed.

Hannahan said "The Daily Show" is so popular among young people that its staff has been invited to both the Republican and Democratic conventions this year - Even though its "news" is primarily satirical.

The student group recommend developing a Civic Benchmark report, to be published semi-annually, to collect and report on information related to civic participation, so that it can be sued to measure success and evaluate progress on voter turnout, civic education and political involvement.

They recommend surveying high school curricula, to determine what is taught about government, to help determine future policy and curricula. The study found that 62 percent of out-of-sate students were required to take a civics course in high school. Only 31 percent of the in-state students rated their high school civics courses as "good," compared to 46 percent of the out-of-state students.

Another recommendation is to develop a short "how government works" course for graduating high school seniors. "No one should graduate from a Massachusetts high school without registering to vote and knowing the basics of government spending and taxation," the report says.

Hannahan, director of the UMass civics initiative, hopes the students' work "will be the beginning of a long-term effort to track and report on the civic health of Massachusetts. Massachusetts has long thought of itself as a leader in democratic innovation," he said. "We need to back that image up with sustained action and always ask ourselves: How are we doing?"

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