Civic Engagement


As Thomas Jefferson once said, "Government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part." As such, an important part of maintaining a healthy relationship between state, local, and federal governments is having an active and educated citizenry.  Civic engagement can cover a broad range of topics such as voting,  contacting governmental representatives, volunteering, discussing political issues with neighbors, etc.  These acts not only allow citizens to express their opinions on various issues - but the number of people participating (or not participating) can also be an indicator of how satisfied citizens are with their government as well as how influential they think their voices are. 

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Tracking Citizen Engagement

There are several ways to track citizen engagement. One such measure is tracing whether or not citizens follow what is occurring in government and public affairs. Pew has been tracking this very question since 1985.  In the graph below, the first slide shows varying levels of engagement or awareness of public affairs.  Those who say that they pay attention to government and public affairs "most" of the time has increased from 36% in 1985 to 59% in 2017.  It is also interesting to note how these numbers are influenced during election years.  For example 2012 had a high of 69% and similarly in 2020 there was 62% of respondents who selected "most of the time."  It is also encouraging that generally, less than 20% of respondents felt that they were following civic affairs "now and then" or "hardly at all".  While other research suggests that these numbers might be inflated (or vary according to factors such as level of government, age, race, party, etc), these numbers show that Americans at least perceive themselves to be engaged in public affairs.

Voter Participation

Knowing what is going on in public affairs is only one aspect of measuring civic engagement.  Another telling measure is how often individuals vote.  2020 actually had the highest turnout rate in 120 years at 66.7%.  However, voter turnout generally tends to be higher in presidential elections than in midterm or even state/local elections. This could explain the percentage variation from year to year (as shown in the graph below).  Another factor to consider when looking at public opinion data for elections is social-desirability bias (individuals will say that they voted even when they didn't to look like better citizens), this could explain why a majority of respondents answered that they vote "always" or "nearly always" even when the actual voter turnout is much lower.  While it would be better if the two numbers were more closely aligned, it at least shows that a majority of citizens perceive the importance of voting or perhaps have a desire to vote more frequently.



Youth Engagement - Expressing Opinion
Youth Engagement - Community Action
Active Participation
Impact of Media and Interest



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.