Halfway through an hourlong interview with Hamilton councilwoman Ileana Schrimer in late July, the topic turned to voting.
“You should be interested [in the government],” Schirmer said. “If you’re not interested, don’t go out and vote. Then, you don’t know what you’re voting for. I tell people that. I’ve always told my daughter, ‘You may not be interested in politics. I wasn’t. I could care less. I started seeing how it was affecting me, then, yeah, I did care.’”
A question immediately popped into my head as Schirmer said this: are there really people who are so disinterested in government they actually know nothing about it?
I decided to find out (very, very unscientifically). I didn’t have the time or the means to drill down and find people who would make the data I collected statisically useful. So, with usefulness out the window, I chose to see if, at the very least, there are people who could entertain us with their governmental knowledge—or lack thereof.
Could people exceed what the federal government considers the minimum standard to be an American citizen? If this was a game show, I’d call it “Who Wants To Be An American?”. Or maybe “Who’s Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?”.
To start my quest, I went to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, plucked 10 study questions from the civics portion of the agency’s naturalization test and posted a sample quiz online. Folks who want to be naturalized citizens of the United States have to pass a similar test, and about 92 percent of them do. In fiscal year 2010, more than 97 percent of applicants passed the civics component of the naturalization test. The government considers answering six or more of the 10 questions correctly a passing effort. I decided to do the same.
In theory, the test should be easy for those of us who grew up here. We should have all learned these things in school—unless, of course, you attended Hamilton Township public schools, where passing a civics course is not a prerequisite for a high school diploma.
But even if you breezed through Steinert High without learning the preamble to the Constitution, you should know what the Constitution is. And, according to the data I collected, 90 percent of people do. Even better, everyone who took the test knew there are nine justices on the Supreme Court, and that Congress had two parts: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
There were some stumbling blocks. Forty percent of participants did not know we elect U.S. Senators for six years or that the Constitution has 26 amendments. A sizable percentage of respondents got tripped up by a question asking who would become president if the president and vice president were unwilling or unable. (It’s the Speaker of the House.)
Still, 90 percent of the test-takers received a passing grade—seven percentage points lower than the results the USCIS received on its civics test in 2010. Then again, the USCIS has a sample size of nearly 3 million people. My sample size was 10. (As I said, it was very, very unscientific.)
But it was a varied, if small, sample. There were Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials, a mix of men and women. And whatever the group was or wasn’t, it did know the basics of American government fairly well. The average score on my quiz was 8.33, a solid B.
Still, I don’t know whether the whole exercise proved anything other than that I struggle to entice people to take online academic quizzes.
In the end, the second half of Schirmer’s quote was easier to figure out. Really, whether or not you are interested in the government, you are still affected by it. If you have thrown out a piece a trash, flushed a toilet or driven on a road today, you have depended on the government in some way. The decisions of local politicians even shape who lives—or can afford to live—in a town.
So, there may be an incentive to make time and actually pay attention to the many candidates who already have commenced vying for your votes in November. In Hamilton, we have at least eight township council candidates, three mayoral candidates, six township school board candidates, two state senate candidates, four state assembly candidates…on and on the ballot goes.
Really, there’s more. (And that’s excluding October’s U.S. Senate special election in New Jersey.)
Informed voters clearly have a lot of work ahead of them. But, heck, it could be rewarding. At least, as I learned last month, more useful than taking—or making—online quizzes.
Connect with Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes at facebook.com/robanthes.