Election Day

Civic Engagement

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the essential components of a healthy relationship between state & local governments and the federal government is an active and educated citizenry. In other words, federal systems work best when city halls and state houses are filled with active and engaged people dealing with problems close to home. The extent to which this is true is one important measure of the health of a federal system.

American Flags
Tracking Citizen Engagment

Research on Civic Engagement provides cause for both alarm and encouragement. On the upside, data from PEW indicates that from 1985 to 2015, about 45% of people pay attention to government and public affairs most of the time, while those who pay very little attention hover around 10%. On the other hand, voting participation is down, and there is evidence that citizens do not believe that their vote matters.

Pew research has been tracking citizen engagement since at least 1985. From 1985 to 2015, Americans that say they follow what's going on in public affairs "most of the time" is relatively high, ranging on average between 40 and 50% (Figure X below). While other research suggests that these numbers might be

inflated, these numbers show that Americans at least perceive themselves to be engaged in public affairs.

While Americans say (above) they follow politics, voting patterns indicate that Americans are less than fully engaged. As shown below, the percentage of citizens reporting that they "always" vote has increased since the 1980s from an average of 50% to an (estimated) average of about 60%:

How does the U.S. turnout record, above, compare to other countries? According to Pew Research Center, the U.S. is not doing well - it is behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD). In a 2018 study, Pew reported that the U.S. was 26th out of 32 OECD countries (Belgium had the highest turnout rate at 87.2% and Switzerland had the lowest at 32%).

The cards below showcase data from a study conducted by John Kincaid and Richard L. Cole (link to study is found below in sources) which measures the state of Federalism Culture in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Respondents were asked the following questions:

  • Is your state/province treated with the Respect it Deserves in the Federal system of Government?

  • A country where everyone speaks the same language is preferable

  • Federal form of government is preferable

  • Having a strong leader in government is preferable

  • When making decisions government is better of limiting discussion

Then the responses to these questions were then aggregated to give each country a score on Federalism Culture. In their article they note that, "It is not our argument that a country’s federal structure is a product of a country’s federal political culture (assuming such a culture exists), but that culture and structure are probably interactive and that a country’s federal structure might thereby be correlated with its citizens’ federal attitudes. Federal–culture orientations might reflect experiences with a country’s federal structure, while federal structure might also reflect a country’s federal political culture." (Citizen Attitudes Toward Issues of Federalism in Canada, Mexico, and the United States)



In 1964, 64% of Americans reported feeling confident that their government was "responsive" to their needs. In 2016, only 50% shared that opinion. 


With regards to elections, the percentage of citizens who think that elections matter “Not Much" spiked from 11% in 2008 to 22% in 2012 and again increasing to 27% in 2016. On attentiveness, data from 1962-2004 shows less than 20% of Americans believed the government paid attention to voter preferences “A Good Deal.” The same data shows more than 56% feel the government pays "Some" and "A Good Deal" to voter preferences. This data is supported by PEW research to show, on average after 2004, only 24.5% of American voters believe elected officials care about the average voting American's opinion. This represents a significant decrease from its highest in 2000 and 1996, where the average was 38.5%.


A study conducted by John Samples and Emily Elkins found Americans exhibit a profound distrust in the ability of the federal government to act on their behalf. In contrast, many believe state and local governments are likely to perform better and give the citizens a greater voice and impact.