South Carolinians are among the nation's most active voters, but they're also among the least likely to stay engaged once the polls close.

That's the conclusion of what is being billed as the first comprehensive assessment of South Carolina's civic health.

The survey of more than 1,300 state residents, done by the National Conference on Citizenship in partnership with the University of South Carolina-Upstate, found South Carolina ranks 19th in terms of voter turnout in recent elections - even though the state is not a presidential battleground and there's relatively less campaigning here.

But it does less well as far as community involvement and neighborhood engagement -steps such as contacting elected officials or boycotting products to make a political statement.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of the National Conference on Citizenship, called South Carolina "a very interesting state. ... It's almost bipolar in its civic engagement."

"While this report reveals clear challenges to South Carolina's civic health, especially around younger and less educated residents, South Carolinians have a strong civic foundation and the skills to tackle these challenges," he added.

Other findings include:

More than 40 percent of South Carolina residents participate in at least one organization, and almost 10 percent have leadership roles. The state ranked 22nd for group membership and 37th in leadership rate.

South Carolinians rank 7th in the nation as far as participating in a church, synagogue, or mosque.

The state's younger residents, those between 18 and 29, ranked 35th as far as discussing politics and 40th in exchanging favors with neighbors. Young residents here are less likely to belong to a group (45th in the country) but much more likely to vote (6th).

Abraham Goldberg, a political science professor with the University of South Carolina-Upstate, said the report is meant to start a dialogue about how to improve the state.

Goldberg said he often asks his students to define citizenship, "and you're going to get a different answer every time," though most would agree that maintaining strong civic health is vital to the state's prosperity and its residents' well-being.

Goldberg said the report's results reenforce a belief that many equate citizenship with voting, "when really, citizenship extends beyond that."

He said he also was surprised to learn about the wide gap between political activity among those with a college degree or more compared to less educated residents. "The most educated people are participating 10 times more than people with very little education," he added, "and to me, that's a little bit alarming."

Improving civic health isn't just a matter of voting and politics. Zoning also plays a role. Goldberg said cities should be developed to bring people of different views and means together.

"I would argue Charleston is the classic example," he said, adding Greenville and Spartanburg also have succeeded in building shared civic spaces.

While the report offers some recommendations, it will be up to elected officials, nonprofit leaders and others to map out the next steps.

"There needs to be some creative thinking about how to increase trust, favors and connections between people," Zherka said, "because those types of connections are also associated with higher employment rates around the country and more sense of social cohesion. ... They're harder to tackle than voter registration and turnout, but they're equally as important."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.