Who’s On First?

October 18, 2021

Surveys repeatedly show that Americans generally know very little about their state governments. Political science research has shown that only about 1 in 5 Americans can name their state legislators. More than half don’t know how legislative districts are determined (answer: through redistricting) or if their state has a constitution (answer: every state does). North Carolina is no exception to this rule.

In the latest Carolina Forward polling, we asked voters a fundamental question about North Carolina’s government: which party controls our state legislature? The responses were worrying.

Correct answer: Republicans. The GOP holds a 69-to-51 seat majority in the NC House of Representatives, and a 28-to-22 seat majority in the NC Senate. They have held this majority uninterrupted since 2011.

The good news: a majority of voters correctly answered that Republicans are the majority party of the North Carolina General Assembly.

The bad news: it was a pretty slim majority.

In almost all respondent categories, barely a majority of voters knew who is in the majority in North Carolina’s legislature. A quarter of voters overall - and more than a third of Democrats - believed that Democrats are a majority. Suburban voters were the best-informed of all, likely reflecting higher educational attainment levels. Results were strongly correlated with educational attainment. Four-year and postgraduate degree holders were 50% more likely to give the correct answer than those with two-year degrees or less. In all major categories, about a fifth to a quarter of voters were unsure.

The low level of awareness of state government is due in large part to declining media coverage. Local and regional media has been in a slow death spiral of declining readership for many years, while national outlets have grown in influence. According to Pew Research, 86% of Americans get their news from digital devices, where large platforms (ex. CNN, Fox News or The New York Times) have a large advantage in distribution, quantity and (sometimes) quality of content. Not only that, but internet searches and especially social media have become major competitors as news sources. More than half of Americans find news on social media, and more than a third “regularly” get news on Facebook alone.

The low level of public awareness for state government is completely inverted with states’ large impact on people’s lives. For most people, their state government has much more impact on their day-to-day life than the federal level does. Many people erroneously believe that policy areas like education, law enforcement, healthcare and voting rights and elections are major federal issues, even though they’re primarily the realm of state governments.

Out of the sunlight of public awareness, corruption thrives. Organizations like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity - which has a very active North Carolina presence - steadily work to circumvent the democratic process through means like gerrymandering to serve special business interests. Most voters would be shocked to learn that ALEC - a private group of large corporations - literally writes ghostwrites corporate-friendly legislation for Republican legislators to introduce under their own names. ALEC is just a very mundane example of the extensive special-interest corruption that thrives in North Carolina’s state legislature, confident that voters will neither know nor care. It’s up to voters to prove them wrong.

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