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Bill of Rights to U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution will be 232 years old tomorrow. Sept. 17 is designated as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day to commemorate the signing of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, according to the National Archives.

How much do you know about our government that is based on this revered document? Can you:

  • Name the three branches of government.
  • Say whether the U.S. Constitution guarantee rights to people in this country illegally?
  • Name a right guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Those who can answer all three of those questions correctly have better than average knowledge of our Constitution, according to results of the annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.

Conducted last month by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the survey found that 39% of American adults correctly named the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. That is the highest correct response in five years, and a substantial increase over last year, when 32% could do the same.

Fifty-five percent of those surveyed knew that people who are in the United State illegally do have some rights under the Constitution.

But 37 percent of adults surveyed couldn't name even one right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

The value of high school civics — and news consumption

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The survey found a link between high school civics classes and civics knowledge. A regression analysis showed that people who said they took high school civics were more likely to know the answers to six survey “knowledge” questions, including naming the branches of government. The same held true for people who said they were greater consumers of the news, whether print, television, or online.

“While this marks an improvement, the overall results remain dismal,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said in a news release on the 2019 survey. “A quarter of U.S. adults can name only one of the three branches of government and more than a fifth can’t name any. The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

The survey was conducted for the Annenberg Center by SSRS, an independent research company that interviewed 1,104 U.S. adults, including 770 via cell phone and 38 in Spanish. The margin of error was ±3.6 percentage points. 

  • 53% correctly said it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, statistically unchanged from prior years.
  • 83% knew that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a citizen has a constitutional right to own a handgun;
  • 63% correctly said that the Constitution protects a defendant from being forced to testify at his own trial;
  • 61% correctly said if the Supreme Court and the president disagree on whether an action by the president is constitutional, the responsibility for deciding constitutionality resides with the court;
  • 55% correctly said that Democrats control the House of Representatives and 61% correctly said that Republicans control the Senate.

Civics education and a free press are vital to self government. Clearly, our children and youth aren't the only ones who need to learn more.

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the National Archives are two good sources of information and lesson plans on the Constitution. Your local public library is another great place to launch a personal or family exploration of the Constitution.

Consider reading the Constitution; it's a relatively brief document and has been amended only 27 times in 232 years. Read it at the link with this Gazette opinion at billingsgazette.com. And please keep reading The Billings Gazette, your information source on local, state and federal government.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.