From her work station in western Montana, Kelly Flanagan can see America's beauty, and she can hear America's ignorance.

Each day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the 21-year-old volunteer looks out at the mountains and answers the phone. The calls to Project Vote Smart come from New York and New Mexico, from California and Connecticut, from Americans who want to be good voters but just don't know how.

Who is my congressman, they ask. How can I reach him? How do I register to vote? Who is running for office? Where do they stand on the issues?

Some of them know exactly what to ask. But others, she says, "have a very vague idea of what they want" — they are stumbling through the labyrinth of American democracy without a map.

There are many of those people, and come November, they will help choose the next leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

They are ignorant though they are awash with information — on television and radio, in print and on the Internet. They are ill-informed because they do not have the time or wherewithal or inclination to learn, or misinformed because they are at the mercy of spinmeisters.

"We're not well informed, and a lot of that is our fault," says Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York. "If the public chose to inform itself, there's no question that it could."

It would be an overstatement to paint America as a confederacy of dunces; there are those who say we may not be a nation of civic superstars, but we know enough to get by.

Still, the fact that more than half of American adults do not know that the Senate has 100 members is disquieting — or so says the goat, in a recent "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip.

"Heeey, take it easy, Einstein .... Why does it matter?" asks another character, a rat.

The goat replies: "Because we live in a democracy, and these same people who know nothing about our government ELECT that government, which means that they decide whether or not we go to war, whether cities are destroyed, whether people lose their lives."

A pause.

"Dude," the rat says, "you made me miss wrestling."

On Aug. 21, 1858, as many as 20,000 people assembled in Ottawa, Ill., to witness Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, candidates for U.S. Senate, debate the issue of slavery.

This moment would be remembered as the apex of American political discourse. It gave rise to the notion that America was once a place where serious and principled politicians debated the issues for the benefit of knowledgeable citizens.

But historian Michael Schudson says this is a myth. Yes, this was a high point, but in some ways it wasn't all that different from today's much-maligned debates.

Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life," says the debaters' reasoned arguments were larded with ad hominem attacks and political tricks. "The debaters carried the melody of democracy, but the lyrics more often than not were the 'doo-ron-rons' and 'sh-boom sh-booms' of the day," Schudson writes.

Second, very few people could hear what Lincoln and Douglas were saying. And that was fine with them. They were there for the sport of it, to cheer their favorites. They couldn't even vote for senators, who at the time were still chosen by the state Legislature.

In the republic's early years, Schudson says, voters deferred to the elite — respected and wealthy members of the community who would signal how they should vote.

In the 19th century, the voters deferred to their parties. "The 19th-century citizen didn't have to know a hell of a lot. He had to know if he was a Democrat or Whig," Schudson says.

In the 20th century, they deferred to no one. Secret ballots, party primaries and other reforms of the Progressive era put the onus of citizenship on the citizens themselves. To make informed decisions, voters would have to understand the system, learn about the candidates and their positions and keep up with the events of the day.

But did they?

Through the years, pollsters have tried to assess how much Americans know. Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, in their book "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," looked at 3,700 survey questions posed between 1940 and 1994.

The results do not inspire confidence.

In 1945, only 45 percent knew that the government regulated radio.

In 1952, only 27 percent could name two branches of government.

In 1970, only 24 percent could identify the secretary of state.

In 1988, only 47 percent could locate England on a map.

All together, Americans knew the answers about 40 percent of the time.

The numbers have remained fairly steady over the years. Delli Carpini points out that they mask differences among groups — women, minorities and young people score low.

Most of the ignorant aren't stupid, he says. They just lack motivation to learn, or access to information, or the education necessary to negotiate the system.

"Over time, if you look at a broad level of knowledge, most people are kind of middling informed," says Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "They're certainly not the ignoramuses that they're often painted as."

Regardless, they know enough — at least according to Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Popkin suggests that Americans vote the same way they do most things — by filtering small bits of information and using their instincts.

"That's what they do, and it's not so bad," he says. "That's how they hire people, choose baby sitters ... Somehow in your gut, you figure these things out."

Popkin calls it "gut rationality." It works best when the choices are clear, and not complicated, he says. Most elections are like that: "People don't learn more than they need to to make a simple choice. You're choosing between two brands."

And in a crisis — in wartime or economic hard times — they pay more attention, and are better informed, he says.

Popkin acknowledges that gut rationality doesn't always work. When people think they know something, and they don't, they often make mistakes.

Preconceived notions also can derail a citizen's judgment. Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, says the Internet can keep minds closed instead of opening them; people who previously had to wade through newspapers that offered opposing points of view now turn to Web sites or television channels that conform with their own beliefs.

Not that they need any help in keeping their minds closed.

Ask people to make a series of estimates about welfare — as political scientists in Illinois did in 1997 — and most will make mistakes consistently. If you have a bias against welfare, you'll overestimate the annual benefits for a family, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, the percent of welfare mothers without a high school education.

"People usually know what they're doing in mating, mothering and making friends," say political scientists James Kuklinski and Paul Quirk of the University of Illinois. But they're not hard-wired to make the kinds of decisions they need to vote.

From the start, some doubted that the average citizen was up to the demands of 20th-century citizenship.

"It was believed that if only he could be taught more facts, if only he would take more interest, if only he would listen to more lectures and read more reports, he would gradually be trained to direct public affairs," wrote the critic Walter Lippmann in 1922.

"The whole assumption is false," he argued.

In de-emphasizing party hoopla and replacing it with stolid and solid news reporting and information, America succeeded only in boring and alienating its citizens, says UCLA political scientist John Zollar. And he says some of the things for which the news media are criticized today — for example, covering campaigns as if they were horse races — actually lend drama and interest to a dry subject.

"Politics requires an entertainment subsidy," he says.

And citizenship has only gotten more difficult as the world has gotten more complicated. "The intellectual task of casting an informed ballot has changed," says Schudson, the author of "The Good Citizen." "It has become much tougher than it used to be, 100 or even 50 years ago."

Schudson says we need to lower the bar, abandoning the model of the omniscient voter; instead, the ideal should be the monitorial citizen who keeps an eye on government, much as adults do kids in a swimming pool — generally aware, and ready to get involved if need be.

That may be a good idea, in theory. But it doesn't help LoriZ at the polls.

LoriZ is a young woman who posted a message on the Web site halfbakery.com, describing her frustrations as she tried to exercise her franchise.

"I'm not a very well informed voter, but it's not for lack of trying," she writes.

"For about two years prior to the first election in which I was old enough to vote, I read two local newspapers ... every day, cutting out virtually all articles about elected officeholders (at all levels of government), or past or known future candidates for elected office. I wasn't even able to fill out half my ballot."

She just didn't know enough about the candidates for Wayne County drain commissioner and other positions that never rise to the level of news.

"Citizens know fairly well what they know and what they don't know," Schudson says. "That's why there's a drop off in voting, from the top to the bottom of the ticket. They know they don't know who the judges are. They leave it blank."

They often have reason to feel inadequate when voting for higher offices, as well.

Fourteen years ago, Richard Kimball — a failed candidate for U.S. Senate from Arizona — established Project Vote Smart. The goal was to dispense nonpartisan voter information.

Today, 30 staffers and 40 interns work at the project's headquarters at the Great Divide Ranch in Montana. The group's Web site (www.vote-smart.org) and its hot line (888-868-3762) provide all kinds of information about candidates for national and state office — background, voting records, how they are rated by interest groups.

But gigabytes of campaign speeches and finance records are no match for the millions of dollars spent by candidates to burnish their image, attack their opponents and spin their stands on the issues. "It's very hard for citizens to realize that they're being manipulated," says Adelaide Kim, chair of Project Vote Smart's board.

To many politicians and handlers, winning trumps an informed electorate. And from the vantage point of Project Vote Smart, it's getting worse.

Every election, Project Vote Smart asks the candidates for president, Congress, governor and state legislature to answer questions on issues such as abortion, energy policy, gun ownership and health care. If they say no, party leaders and local media are asked to intervene.

In 1996, 72 percent of congressional candidates ultimately answered the questions.

In 2000, 63 percent answered.

In 2002? Only 50 percent.

In 1997, America's high school seniors were tested on civics. They flunked.

Just 27 percent were judged proficient by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A 2003 report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research of Civic Learning and Engagement suggests one reason why: As recently as the 1960s, most high school kids took three civics classes. Most of today's students take just one.

The report does not propose a return to the old civics classes, and rote memorization of small details of government. Instead, it suggests a mix of service learning, social studies classes, simulations, current events discussions and more student voice in school governance.

James S. Fishkin has another idea for civic education on an even larger scale. A professor at Stanford University, Fishkin would declare a national holiday before every election, gather Americans in small groups to discuss the issues, and pay every one $150 for his or her time.

He calls it Deliberation Day. It is, he says, "a safe place for serious conversation."

Deliberation Day (also the title of a book by Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman, published this year) may sound like a pipe dream. But since 1997 Fishkin has run dozens of small-scale experiments, in America and overseas, and PBS will sponsor a national pilot program on Oct. 16.

Too often, Fishkin says, people don't feel their voice matters, so they don't become engaged. If Samuel Popkin talks about "gut rationality," Fishkin is more interested in "rational ignorance" — the idea that voters don't educate themselves because they know their vote is just one among millions, and will not determine the winner.

"It's like they're sleepwalking," he says.

But in a smaller group, they are forced to listen to different viewpoints. They learn things they never knew. And every voice matters.

"The public is very smart," says Fishkin, "if you just give them a chance."