Editorial Roundup: New England

Rutland Herald. January 30, 2024.

Editorial: Deepfakes

In a recent interview with Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas, on the topic of safe elections, she indicated that AI is going to become one of the next threats designed to confuse or intimidate voters.

Only a few days later, New Hampshire voters received an apparent robocall that used artificial intelligence to mimic President Joe Biden’s voice. The message discouraged voters there from turning out to the polls during last week’s primary election.

The New Hampshire Attorney General, John Formella, said his office and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating. He confirmed that the message “appears to be an illegal attempt to disrupt and suppress voting.”

In a recent interview with Vermont Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas, on the topic of safe elections, she indicated that AI is going to become one of the next threats designed to confuse or intimidate voters.

Only a few days later, New Hampshire voters received an apparent robocall that used artificial intelligence to mimic President Joe Biden’s voice. The message discouraged voters there from turning out to the polls during last week’s primary election.

The New Hampshire Attorney General, John Formella, said his office and the U.S. Department of Justice are investigating. He confirmed that the message “appears to be an illegal attempt to disrupt and suppress voting.”

According to the AP, generative AI deepfakes already have appeared in campaign ads in the 2024 presidential race, and the technology has been misused to spread misinformation in multiple elections across the globe over the past year, from Slovakia to Indonesia and Taiwan.

That makes AI a weapon that requires attention and oversight. As AI technology improves, the federal government is still scrambling to address it. Congress has yet to pass legislation seeking to regulate the industry’s role in politics despite some bipartisan support. The Federal Election Commission is weighing public comments on a petition for it to regulate AI deepfakes in campaign ads.

Here in Vermont, it might behoove lawmakers to approve a joint resolution calling for fair elections in 2024, and condemning acts of voter suppression. Any effort to restore faith is worthy.

WIRED last week published an article written by Vittoria Elliott and Makena Kelly that describes how “the political deepfake moment is here,” according to one of the experts they interviewed about AI in politics.

Robert Weissman, president of the progressive advocacy group Public Citizen, is quoted as saying, “Policymakers must rush to put in place protections, or we’re facing electoral chaos. The New Hampshire deepfake is a reminder of the many ways that deepfakes can sow confusion and perpetuate fraud.”

The article points out that in July 2023, “several tech companies, including Microsoft, OpenAI, and Google, made voluntary commitments to watermark video and photos that had been manipulated by AI that would essentially allow regular consumers to differentiate it from organic content. In October, the Biden administration issued an executive order with further guidance for companies developing AI technologies. Over the past few months, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer has led a series of AI Insight Forums, inviting tech leaders like Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to meet with lawmakers and discuss regulation. … But only a few bills have come out of these discussions.”

U.S. Rep. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who ran for president in 2020, told WIRED, “We need federal action to ensure this powerful technology is not used to deceive voters and spread disinformation.”

Audio fakes are especially pernicious because they lack many of the visual signals that might help someone identify that they’ve been altered, and phone calls, unlike fake posts on social media, would be more likely to reach an older demographic that’s already susceptible to scams, experts warn.

We agree with advocates like Copeland Hanzas, Klobuchar and others seeking to protect our process.

Because spreading disinformation to suppress voting and deliberately undermine free and fair elections will not stand. We all must be engaged, as voters and citizens, and be mindful so that we can fight back against any attempt to undermine our democratic process.


Boston Globe. February 1, 2024.

Editorial: Too many bullets, too many guns, and the buck stops on Beacon Hill

Senate introduces its entry into the anti-gun violence effort with support from police chiefs.

When eight people were shot and hundreds forced to flee during last summer’s J’ouvert celebration, Boston police linked most of the damage to two shooters wielding makeshift machine guns capable of firing dozens of rounds of ammunition — the latest innovation in homemade gun technology, the latest threat to public safety.

It’s not unusual to get to a crime scene and find “that over 100 shots have been fired, sometimes in less than 10 seconds,” Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said at a news conference last week in support of the state Senate’s new gun reform bill. Again, the result of Glock switches or “sear switches” — often used to modify the increasingly common do-it-yourself, unregistered ghost guns. Ryan said Cambridge and Somerville alone recorded more than 20 shootings involving ghost guns and young people in 2023.

Massachusetts may have the lowest gun death rate in the nation, but time and technology do not stand still.

“I want to make sure we are keeping our legislation up to day,” Senate President Karen Spilka told the Globe editorial board in explaining the Senate’s version of a gun violence prevention bill — the SAFER Act — scheduled for floor debate Thursday. “Even though our gun safety laws are among the best in the country, I want Massachusetts to continue to be a model.”

Members of the Massachusetts House, which passed its own version of a bill to overhaul the state’s firearms laws last October, no doubt share that goal. The problem will be — as it too often is on Beacon Hill — reconciling two different approaches.

The Senate version at some 35 pages is more concise that the 126-page House effort and, Spilka was quick to note, has the advantage of gaining the support of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, which opposed the House bill, and of a number of district attorneys, including Ryan.

“At the end of the day it has to be enforceable,” Agawam Police Chief Eric Gillis, head of the chiefs association, said at last week’s news conference. “Whatever this body does has to be carried out by people in our sphere, and when it’s distilled down and simple and makes sense, it’s going to work. So that’s what works for us.”

The most critical elements of both bills are their emphasis on outlawing those untraceable ghost guns, requiring serial numbers on gun frames in order to be licensed, and outlawing the ownership of devices designed to make semiautomatic weapons more lethal (those Glock switches or auto sears).

Both bills also make improvements to the state’s “red flag” law, which allows a court to require an individual to surrender a license to carry and their firearms if that person poses a risk to themselves or others. Currently only family members and police can apply for such an order. The Senate bill adds health care providers (who have provided services to that person within the last six months). The House bill would also add school administrators and employers, along with health care providers, wisely making it broader than the Senate version.

Both bills also seek to update state law on where guns can be carried in the wake of a 2022 US Supreme Court decision that curtailed New York’s strict right-to-carry law. The Senate bill would ban guns in government administration buildings, including courthouses. Senate majority leader Cynthia Creem, point person on the bill, said it wasn’t necessary to add schools to the list (as the House bill does) because state law already prohibits possessing guns in schools (except by law enforcement). But the Senate bill also allows individual communities to opt-out of the municipal building gun ban, raising the prospect of having guns banned in Concord Town Hall but not, say, in neighboring Bedford. Seriously? There’s something to be said for uniformity in gun laws.

The Senate bill would keep police departments in charge of the annual inspections of local gun dealers — inspections that haven’t been happening in some towns, according to recent Globe reports — but give the State Police a role in back-stopping those inspections. The House bill turns the inspection process over to the State Police. With yet another State Police scandal breaking this week, perhaps this isn’t the best time to turn over one more responsibility to the troubled agency.

None of these differences ought to be deal-breakers, though. When it comes to the basics of what needs to be done to update the state’s gun laws, there is more that unites the two approaches taken by the House and the Senate than divides them. In the end most Massachusetts residents won’t care who stands behind the governor when the bill gets signed, which committee held the longest hearing, or whether a less than critical element zigs or zags. What they do care about is whether their communities will be safer next year than they are right now and whether law enforcement will have the tools it needs to make that happen.

In this shortened legislative session, lawmakers need to keep their priorities straight and their eyes on that prize.


Bangor Daily News. January 29, 2024.

Editorial: Climate resilience requires rebuilding to withstand more damaging storms

Resiliency. That was a word, and concept, that was used over and over again during last week’s meeting of Maine’s Climate Council. Gov. Janet Mills had called the group together for a special meeting after two storms slammed coastal Maine within three days earlier this month. Those storms came less than a month after a December storm caused devastating flooding in many inland parts of the state.

Speakers at the meeting, from small towns, state agencies and scientific organizations, stressed the need to rebuild essential infrastructure, such as roads and fishing piers, quickly. But, they reiterated, that infrastructure needs to be rebuilt to withstand rising sea levels, more frequent floods and damaging storms.

“Whatever you had planned for climate change, it is not enough,” Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings told the group. Climate change, she said, is “coming on us faster than anticipated.”

Many of the town’s roads and buildings, along with commercial fishing infrastructure, were badly damaged by a Jan. 10 storm that brought high winds, rain and record storm surges to part of the coast. It was followed by a Jan. 13 storm that was worse in some areas of the state.

While Billings recognized the need to repair and rebuild structures to withstand storms, floods and tidal surges that will become more frequent, she also noted the urgency of this work. In Stonington, 350 fishing boats need to get going when the fishing season starts up in a couple months, Billings said. They need piers and other stable infrastructure on land for that season to be a success.

This is a challenge facing local, state and federal regulators: Changes need to be made to zoning and permitting requirements to address the consequences of climate change but repairs, reconstruction and new construction may need to happen quickly. Permitting and zoning changes can’t take so long that industries and communities are hurt. Nor should rebuilding happen so quickly that no needed adaptations are made to account for the next flood, the next wind storm, because they are surely coming.

It was encouraging to hear the commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, Melanie Loyzim, share the agency’s plans for both expedited permitting but also for permitting that addresses the realities of climate change. For example, the department has proposed new legislation that would exempt emergency reconstruction of damaged structures in flood zones from permit requirements under the Natural Resources Protection Act. This exemption should help fishermen and seafood dealers rebuild their piers to be more storm resistant and ready for the busy summer season.

Making those piers more storm resistant could mean they would be taller, which could upset neighbors or others who would then see the structures. But, Loyzim said the state would weather that criticism when it comes.

“In terms of coastal damage that occurred in January, we were not prepared for how to deal with all the structural damage, where piers and wharves washed away, and there are requirements for permits,” Loyzim said. “We know we can’t get permits approved fast enough to get people back to work.”

Culverts, which don’t generally get a lot of attention, are another example of how to build for climate resiliency. Joyce Taylor, chief engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, told the group that the department began replacing old culverts with larger ones and raising bridges. Those culverts and bridges made it through the storms, she said. They did cost more, however, which led to some earlier criticism of the department wasting money.

After the recent storms that caused widespread damage in many parts of Maine, it is increasingly clear that improving permitting and construction standards and spending additional funds to build infrastructure that can withstand the impacts of a changing climate are not a waste of time and money. They are, in fact, essential.


Hearst Connecticut Media. January 26, 2024.

Editorial: CT Gov. Lamont struggles to change the environment

Connecticut is clearly a blue state. Yes, despite all those trees and emerald lawns, is it really all that green?

If Gov. Ned Lamont could deliver his environmental vision, Connecticut would likely be among the nation’s leaders when it comes to climate issues. Yet he was forced to concede during a summit hosted by the League of Conservation Voters that the state’s record of late has been “spotty” when it comes to environmental causes.

The biggest setback was his recent failure to have Connecticut phase out new, fully gas-powered cars by 2035. Lamont suffered pushback from some Democrats as well as Republicans who reliably reject such initiatives. Now, rather than become a pioneer, Connecticut will likely be lapped by other states.

The governor attributed the recent setbacks to resistance from Republicans and the fossil fuel industry. Days after Tuesday’s summit, Republicans celebrated the news that Lamont would not get the special session he hoped for to consider the electric vehicle mandate. Instead, the issue will be debated during the upcoming regular session.

Which means it’s not a dead issue yet. And there is room for negotiation. As Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly noted in a statement, “Republicans support electric vehicles, but not half-baked mandates which hurt our most vulnerable residents.”

Such tension could eventually produce benefits. To have electric cars blanket the state, residents would need to be able to charge them everywhere. The governor’s team is now working to find a way to deliver public charging infrastructure to the neighborhoods that lack them.

While the environmentalists are playing offense, Republicans, Big Oil, etc. are playing defense. Offense will eventually prevail in some form. Once upon a time, recycling bins at every home seemed like a folly too, as did changing the bags we use for our groceries.

Changing the automobiles Americans drive presents a much bigger challenge. People treat cars like offspring. It’s a bond even governors can’t easily break.

So the summit at the Connecticut Science Center in downtown Hartford gathered the perfect troops for Lamont to rally. It’s just a cliché that some activists are portrayed as aggressive (gun activists and the tobacco industry come to mind) while the likes of librarians and environmentalists are posited as meek. It’s not necessarily true (we’ve seen how tough librarians are), but it doesn’t mean Lamont is wrong to try to get the chorus to pump up the volume on climate priorities.

“Tell them this is not a nice-to-do, this is a must-do,” he said

The “them” in question aren’t just resisting a car mandate. Lamont has also struggled on other issues, such as reducing the amount of trash residents send into the waste stream.

Still, environmentalists should find solace in progress being made in some unexpected corners of Connecticut. For one, Greenwich recently put restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers.

Lamont may have discovered that it isn’t easy being green, but it is possible to slowly change his state’s hues.