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You don’t need to pass a civics quiz to vote

October 13, 2018

Every year, a nonpartisan think tank conducts a survey in which it asks a little more than 1,000 of our fellow Americans if they know any of the three branches of government.

This year, about 74 percent of them said they could indeed. But only 32 percent of those asked could name all three branches, and 33 percent drew a blank.

That’s up a tick from last year, when a mere 26 percent could name the executive, legislative and judicial branches. We, the people — at least as indicated by the poll released last month — are also a bit lost when it comes to understanding how the three branches operate: 27 percent said the president can ignore Supreme Court rulings.

Those might be cringe-worthy findings regarding a lesson taught in many elementary schools, but this year’s poll also showed that those asked were familiar with constitutional provisions involving impeachment and pardons, stuff that had been in the news during the second week of August, when pollsters were on the phones asking questions.

This suggests that while voters might be a little rusty on the fundamentals of our system of government, they are paying attention to what they hear on television and read in the newspaper’s web page or — yikes! — social media. And that might be something to think about as we head into early voting, which begins Oct. 22.

It is also a good time to think about Christopher Wylie, the pink-haired Canadian whistleblower who told the world how social media activity can shape a nation’s politics.

A Facebook quiz about anything could grant a company access to millions of accounts and, in turn, the predilections of the faces behind those accounts: how they vote, what they fear, what they are so passionate about that they’ll share virulently. At least for a while, the Cambridge Analytica scandal had Americans questioning memes, vetting links and protecting their privacy from the Russians; the story broke back in May, long before the latest calls to vote for change in the Nov. 6 election.

But we tend to forget stuff, which doesn’t really matter since you don’t have to pass a civics quiz to become a voter.

So the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey has become a yearly reminder of what we ought to know about trying to cobble together a more perfect union. The survey has been measuring our constitutional knowledge since 2006, and it has become a yearly thing since 2013.

It’s conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, which is also the force behind FactCheck.org, a site that helps debunk internet rumors and spin, and iCivics, an educational nonprofit that provides tools to engage schoolchildren in learning about civics in our changing times.

Last week, for example, iCivics launched an online game called Newsfeed Defenders, in which players moderating a web page are supposed to attract readers while learning to ferret out clickbait, flagrant bias and fake news. It’s a challenge meant to develop news literacy skills while showing participants how they could easily become part of the problem that weakens democracy.

That’s how you build responsible, well-informed voters, along with the occasional reminder of how we came to be tricameral in the first place.

But how well they’ll test when faced with a barrage of questions on the phone while they’re watching Netflix is anybody’s guess.

mariaanglinwrites@gmail.com

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