A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed less than half of respondents knew their two U.S. senators are Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte.
Fewer still knew their congressmen or state senators and representatives.
People who keep a close watch on the political process have mixed opinions about what’s driving the lack of knowledge about political leaders, but agree it’s bad news for democracy and society.
“I think it’s amazing. Those are people you elect and send to Washington,” Windham Republican Committee chairman Bruce Breton said. “I can’t believe people don’t know their U.S. senators. People should be aware of their senators and what they are doing.”
The poll showed only 42 percent of respondents could name Shaheen and Ayotte. Another 21 percent could name at least one.
Only 18 percent could identify Democratic Congresswomen Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster .
UNH said just 19 percent could provide a name for their state senator, though the poll didn’t check for accuracy. Only 17 percent said they knew the name of one of their state representatives.
Breton said political leaders could help by holding more town meetings with constituents.
“I’m not terribly surprised, based on the percentage of people who vote,” Derry Democratic Town Committee chairman Charlie Zoeller said. “Either people consider themselves too busy or they are too disillusioned.”
Adding to the disillusionment are so many negative stories about political leaders, he said.
“Everybody has a stake in what our officials are doing,” Zoeller said. “It’s beholden on all of us to try to follow the policies our elected officials are voting on.”
Zoeller said he can understand why people might not know their state senator or state representative.
“Knowing state senators and state representatives is a lot harder because there are so many of them and they are much less visible,” Zoeller said. “It’s hard to keep track of them all.”
Zoeller said his own children are grown so he doesn’t know whether schools are doing enough.
“Certainly, it wouldn’t hurt to have required courses in civics,” he said. “I’d also like to see more elected officials go into the schools, including state representatives.”
Zoeller said more newspaper coverage of issues would help voters know the political leaders and where they stand.
Speaking in Concord in September 2012, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter the greatest problem facing the country was ignorance of civics.
“We know, with reliable evidence, that two-thirds of the people of the United States don’t know we have three separate branches of government,” Souter said at the time.
Donna Dube teaches social studies at Pelham High School. She said her students do know their political leaders from their studies.
But Dube acknowledges things change for some over time as they become adults.
“They lose interest,” Dube said. “All you have to do is look at the surveys. Only 11 percent have confidence in Congress, so, it’s apathy. They drop out rather than try to change things.”
Dube is troubled by other survey results.
“People don’t know we’re governed by a Constitution,” she said. “How can we sustain ourselves as a democracy if we don’t know how we are governed?”
Derry town historian Rick Holmes said one reason people may not recognize their leaders is they are doing a good job and staying out of trouble.
“They haven’t done anything to get the electorate angry,” Holmes said.
Once a political leader is caught up in scandal than changes, he said.
“There would be hell to pay and everyone would know their name,” he said.
Holmes said schools are so focused on science and math that social studies is emphasized less.
“This is a direct result,” he said.
State testing doesn’t include social studies, Holmes said.
“That means the state is viewing that as less important,” he said.
Holmes sees a potential danger in the results.
“To a degree, that means people are not taking ownership in their government,” he said. “That means anything can happen because they are not on watch. It would be very easy for unpopular things to happen.”