LNP/LancasterOnline. September 27, 2023.
Editorial: Automatic voter registration is a win for Pennsylvanians. Now we need open primaries.
Voting should be easy and accessible to all Pennsylvanians who are eligible to cast ballots. That should be the bottom line for anyone who believes in democracy.
This is why no-excuse mail-in voting, enacted in the commonwealth in 2019, is such a good thing.
It’s also why Pennsylvania’s implementation of automatic voter registration — already offered in 23 other states and the District of Columbia — should be hailed as a great step forward.
We know Republicans in the state Legislature are unhappy because automatic voter registration was implemented by the executive, not legislative, branch. As we’d like this measure to be permanent, legislation would have been our preference, too. But we cannot imagine any world in which the GOP leadership in Harrisburg would have supported this change, especially as former President Donald Trump — the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — denounced it Monday on his Truth Social platform as “a disaster” for Republican election chances, his own included.
Why, pray tell, would making it easier to register to vote be a bad thing for Republicans? (Republicans as well as Democrats apply for driver’s licenses and IDs at PennDOT centers.) We have our theories, but we’re very open to hearing others.
In a news release, Shapiro said automatic voter registration is a “commonsense step to ensure election security and save Pennsylvanians time and tax dollars.”
At PennDOT driver license and photo centers, he noted, commonwealth residents already provide proof of identity, residency, age and citizenship — “all the information required to register to vote — so it makes good sense to streamline that process.”
Driver’s license and ID applicants will be automatically taken through the voter registration process, though they can opt out if they wish (before, they had to opt in).
Secretary of the Commonwealth Al Schmidt, who previously served as a Philadelphia Republican city commissioner, said that not only will eligible voters have the required documentation in hand, but “they will have their picture taken and sign their name electronically. Having all of that happen at the same time means the verification process is extremely secure.”
PennDOT Secretary Mike Carroll said that if a noncitizen or anyone ineligible to vote applies for a driver’s license or photo ID, the option to register to vote will not appear.
The “hundreds of thousands of customer interactions at PennDOT facilities guarantee we’ll see more registered voters and more up-to-date voter records,” Christmas of the Committee of Seventy noted in his column Sunday.
When a person registers to vote through PennDOT, that information first goes to the Department of State and then to county election officials for final processing, Carter Walker reported for the nonpartisan news organization Votebeat.
Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, told Votebeat that the association supports the ability of every Pennsylvanian “to have an active stake in the voting process,” but “we would have appreciated an opportunity to have a conversation with the administration before this was announced.”
As the work of finalizing voter registrations falls on already-strained county elections offices, we agree that this is a step that the Shapiro administration should have taken.
Nevertheless, automatic voter registration is a welcome development. Registering to vote shouldn’t be a hassle. And any elected official who secures a position of power via democracy should want all eligible voters to cast ballots.
As LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Jaxon White reported last week, the Pennsylvania Senate has passed a bill with bipartisan support that would move the 2024 presidential primary up to March 19 — “more than a month sooner than its current date of April 23, which conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Passover.”
The Senate bill still needs the support of the state House, which reconvenes today after a long break.
Late Pennsylvania primaries mean that the Keystone State — the birthplace of American democracy — holds little sway in presidential nomination contests. So we support earlier presidential primaries, particularly as Pennsylvania is a key battleground state. We just wish this calendar change had been considered earlier, to give county election workers more time to prepare.
Presidential primaries tend to draw most of the attention because the national stakes are so high. But other primary elections can have a much more direct impact on voters.
In Lancaster County, where Republicans continue to outnumber Democrats, general elections often are decided in the primaries. So low voter turnout in off-year primaries can have lasting consequences.
One obvious solution to poor turnout? Open primaries to independent voters.
We were cheered last week by the release of a letter from three former Republican governors and two former Democratic governors calling for the repeal of closed primaries.
The former governors wrote that repealing closed primaries would “bring 1.2 million independent voters back into the primary election process. Representing both major political parties, we come together in our firm belief that it is long past time for Pennsylvania to join the 43 other states that in some way allow independent voters to vote in every election.” They noted that repealing closed primaries “enjoys remarkable support, with 74% of all Pennsylvania voters in favor.”
As we wrote last year, closed primaries in Lancaster County mean that unaffiliated voters often end up paying the salaries of elected officials they didn’t get a chance to choose. And, to add insult to injury, their tax dollars help to pay for the primaries from which they are excluded.
As we maintained, “Closed primaries are not just fundamentally unfair. They also encourage extremism and diminish democracy. They encourage candidates to play to their party’s base, rather than to seek to win support from a broad swath of voters. Because turnout tends to be low in nonpresidential primary elections, candidates end up trying to appeal to the most die-hard of their party’s voters.”
This makes compromise and bipartisan cooperation far less likely.
It won’t be easy for some lawmakers to change a primary election system that favors extremism and makes it easier for them to retain power. But if they’re truly committed to democracy, they’ll repeal closed primaries.
Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. September 28, 2023.
Editorial: A night of looting underscores the need for a balanced approach to public safety in Philadelphia
Tuesday’s unrest had little to do with a court ruling in the police shooting of Eddie Irizarry, yet both capture the tension between protecting the public and preserving individual civil rights.
The looting that erupted across Philadelphia Tuesday night shows how many people feel free to act out with impunity. Scores of masked individuals, including many juveniles, broke into Center City stores and stole merchandise including iPads from Apple, clothing from Lululemon, and sneakers from Foot Locker.
Smash-and-grabs continued for hours along retail corridors stretching from the Northeast to West Philadelphia. More than 20 people were arrested as police worked to restore order.
It was a baptism by fire for John Stanford, who was appointed acting police commissioner last week by outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney. Hours before the looting began, Stanford also confronted the backlash after a judge dismissed the murder charges against former Police Officer Mark Dial, who shot Eddie Irizarry as he sat in his car with the windows closed following a police stop for driving erratically in Kensington.
Stanford was quick to say the looting was unrelated to the court ruling that set Dial free. That was evident in the peaceful protests that erupted after the judge’s decision — protests that rightly demanded accountability for what police body camera footage shows was a deadly use of force.
Still, some of those who took part in the unrest Tuesday unjustifiably invoked Irizarry’s name as the evening unfolded. One woman shouted, “Rest well, Eddie,” while she livestreamed the vandalization of a liquor store.
If nothing else, the looting and Irizarry’s shooting crystalize the profound tension that exists in our city between protecting both the public and individual civil rights.
The record increase in gun violence and murders has many Philadelphians living in fear. But the rise in retail thefts, burglaries, and stolen cars is emblematic of a broader breakdown that threatens to further chase residents, tourists, and businesses from the city.
Stores like Target and CVS now lock up basic products such as deodorant and diapers behind plexiglass. Several retailers, including Wawa, have closed stores in Philadelphia, citing robberies and safety concerns.
Many point to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s decision to effectively decriminalize shoplifting goods under $500 as sending a message that people are free to take what they want.
In fact, acting Commissioner Stanford described the looters as “criminal opportunists.” He then voiced the frustration of many: “Our city can’t afford this nonsense.”
This is a perilous time for Philadelphia. Many office buildings have sat empty since the pandemic, and the population is dropping. Crime, poverty, and failing schools remain seemingly intractable challenges despite a 50% increase in city spending under Kenney.
The mayor is a lame duck who checked out long ago. The City Council presidency is up for grabs. The district attorney is a former civil rights lawyer who sued dozens of cops and is disliked by them for his soft-on-crime approach. At the last check, Krasner’s office itself was saddled with low morale and personnel churn.
Meanwhile, the city is without a permanent police commissioner until a new mayor arrives in January, and the acting commissioner said his own mother doesn’t feel safe.
The dysfunction and absentee leadership leave residents on edge and feeling like they’re on their own.
Parker condemned the looting in an interview with The Inquirer on Wednesday, and emphasized the need to “bring some order back to our city.” But it is essential that she restore order without violating civil rights.
In the early 1990s, police used stop-and-frisk to crack down on petty offenses, arguing it prevented more serious crimes. But the practice was found unconstitutional, as police targeted mostly young Black and Hispanic men, who ended up stigmatized and with long arrest records and fines.
In too many cases, the cops killed suspects as routine stops escalated into violent confrontations often captured on cell phone video. The harrowing 2020 Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, who was accused of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill, led to calls to defund the police as the pendulum swung from tough-on-crime to diversion policies.
Parker must strike a balance. But the city can’t afford to wait for her. Safety — without the abuse of authority — must be restored now.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. October 3, 2023.
Editorial: Improve and pass both Clean Slate and probation reform bills
A pair of bipartisan bills meant to lessen the impact of small violations of the law — one allowing the records of more small-time offenses to be sealed, another limiting the use of incarceration due to technical probation violations — deserve to be passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
The two bills are now linked in negotiations between the parties and the upper and lower chambers in Harrisburg. If all sides listen to honest feedback, both bills can be strengthened — and in turn can strengthen the commonwealth’s criminal justice system and economy.
Pennsylvania’s 2018 Clean Slate law was the first of its kind in America, and was subsequently copied by several states. The law allows people convicted of summary offenses, including disorderly conduct or small-scale theft, to petition to have records of their conviction sealed. Punishments for low-level offenses should not damage a person’s life prospects, such as applying for housing, jobs or college.
The expansion, whose lead sponsor is Democratic state representative Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, would allow some non-violent felonies, such as drug possession (but not distribution), to be sealed after a ten-year wait.
The bill has been held up, however, due to concerns that some county courts have applied its rules too broadly. In some cases, where a person was convicted of summary and more serious crimes in the same case, courts have sealed the entire case, as opposed to only the low-level offense.
The consequences can be serious: Men previously convicted of sexual offenses have been given inappropriate and dangerous positions of authority while hiding behind sealed records. It is essential that the chambers work together to ensure this issue is resolved in the new bill.
At the same time, Republican senator Lisa Baker of Luzerne County has sponsored a bill to reform the state’s probation system. The key line provides that “there is a presumption against (incarceration) for technical violations of probation,” such as missing a meeting with a probation officer. The bill then enumerates certain exceptions that would still trigger being sent to jail.
Criminal justice reform advocates are split on the bill, with some arguing the exceptions are too complicated and expansive, potentially having the opposite of the desired effect. This concern should be taken seriously, but shouldn’t sink the bill: There’s broad agreement about the ends — keeping people out of jail for technical probation violations — and legislators just need to settle on the best means.
Both the Clean Slate bill, which is now in the Senate, and the probation bill, which is now in the House, are supported by business groups, who want more reliable workers to be available in the labor force. The stigma of convictions and the overuse of incarceration have economic costs, which these bills would mitigate.
While both proposals may need some tweaking, good-faith negotiations can improve both and ensure they make it to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk. And that should happen soon, so they can help more people get out, and stay out, of the criminal justice system.
Scranton Times-Tribune. October 1, 2023.
Editorial: Questionable elder abuse stats merit investigation
Our report today on a steady rise in elder abuse contains some alarming figures. In the past six years, reports of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of Pennsylvania seniors are up 55%. In Northeast Pennsylvania, they’re up 85%.
State and local officials attribute the increase to economic and emotional pressures on caregivers, the devastating opioid crisis, which has fractured families, and law enforcement’s sharpened focus on prosecuting financial crimes against seniors.
They also point to heightened awareness due to advertising campaigns that educate the public on how to recognize and report elder abuse.
But there are some other startling numbers in our report that officials find harder to explain. Over those same six years, the number of abuse reports made to the Luzerne/Wyoming Counties Area Agency on Aging was significantly lower than the state average. Luzerne/Wyoming’s numbers were also much lower than the numbers reported in other Northeast Pennsylvania counties and third-class counties, when adjusted for population.
Luzerne/Wyoming rates next to last among 52 area agencies on aging for the number of abuse reports per 10,000 residents aged 60 or over, with 44. In neighboring Lackawanna County the number is 162, while the state average is 113. And Luzerne/Wyoming substantiates only 18% of the abuse reports it investigates, again next to last. The state average is 36%.
Luzerne County’s district attorney and controller find those numbers so concerning they are calling on the county to investigate.
County and state officials maintain the state Department on Aging regularly reviews the performance of the protective services unit of the Luzerne/Wyoming Counties Area Agency on Aging and has found no major issues.
They speculate that many abused seniors from Wyoming County, which has no hospitals, go to Lackawanna County hospitals and reports involving those seniors would be recorded there. They also note Lackawanna County has the tri-county area’s only geriatric psychiatric unit, which attracts patients from Luzerne and Wyoming.
However, it stands to reason that Wyoming County residents might be just as likely to patronize Luzerne County hospitals and Wyoming’s relatively small over-65 population — 5,843 compared to Luzerne’s 64,903 — makes it unlikely Wyoming’s lack of a hospital would have such an outsized effect.
Similarly, the 22-bed geriatric psychiatry unit in Lackawanna County seems too small to account for the large discrepancy in Luzerne/Wyoming’s numbers.
While officials on the state and county level undoubtedly care about protecting vulnerable seniors, they appear to be looking for easy answers instead of digging into the numbers to determine if elderly residents of the two counties are being adequately protected from abuse.
Those seniors, and all residents of Northeast Pennsylvania, deserve an explanation, not speculation, and an investigation is surely in order.
Wilkes-Barre Citizens' Voice. September 28, 2023.
Editorial: The problem with being among the best for teachers
Teachers have become easy prey for criticism among those claiming today’s classrooms represent a liberal free-for-all.
Much of that noise comes from those who digest an overabundance of division from their media of choice, but haven’t set foot in a classroom in years.
There is no doubt, however, that the slowly rising tide of societal dysfunction that landed in teachers’ laps over the past several decades accelerated thanks to the pandemic. As a result, the profession is struggling more than ever.
All this led WalletHub, a personal finance company, to conduct a study on the best and worst places to be a teacher, noting that teachers are more fairly compensated and better protected in some states than in others, and that the best states are less likely to face a revolving door of teacher turnover.
Turns out Pennsylvania ranked 13th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., a solid showing that put it in the “best” end of the spectrum.
WalletHub compared 24 key indicators of teacher friendliness, and used data sets including teachers’ income, growth potential, pupil-teacher ratio and public-school spending per student.
The latter category was not weighted as heavily as some others, and that makes sense considering Pennsylvania’s 13th place ranking but its terrible record on per-pupil funding. A Penn State study found that 412 of 500 public school districts in Pennsylvania are inadequately funded, with a total shortfall of $6.2 billion.
Professor Matthew Kelly presented his findings to a bipartisan legislative commission on behalf of the six school districts that successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s public school funding system, including Shenandoah Valley, Panther Valley and Wilkes-Barre Area from our region.
As for the WalletHub survey, Ramon Goings, associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, pointed out the obvious in his analysis: “It has been discussed heavily in recent years how teachers remain underpaid despite the most important role they have in developing our next cadre of leaders, doctors, lawyers and scientists. Along with this, teachers are still supporting students dealing with crises including the impact of COVID-19 which has dramatically shaped how schools run.”
While critics in the Keystone state may use the WalletHub survey as ammunition for their “teachers-have-it-too-good” argument, the ranking’s relative bright spot should not be overstated considering the overall state of the teaching profession. To be at the “best” end of a bad spectrum is still … bad.