2 easy things you can do to defend democracy

By Lauren Cristella and Jeff Greenburg

Amid all the electoral stressors we’re facing in 2024, Pennsylvania – one of the most important states in this election – is facing a crisis. Not only are there existential threats to democracy by bad actors, but we’re losing experienced county election officials across the state and it’s been difficult to fill critical poll worker positions. This issue is especially dire in Northeast Philadelphia, where polling places are far too frequently understaffed.

Luckily, there is something ordinary Pennsylvanians can do to help safeguard our elections. But we need to act fast.

Democracy works better when we earn and hold trust: in local election officials, in the integrity of our systems and in each other. The best way to build trust and improve our political culture is to get involved and become a part of the democratic process. And the best way to do that is by becoming a poll worker.

Poll workers are responsible for overseeing the operations of polling places across Pennsylvania. As a poll worker, you gain visibility into the process and are able to witness the system in action for yourself.

Poll workers are members of our own communities who collectively dedicate countless hours before, during and after Election Day to ensure all of us have the opportunity to make our voices heard by voting. They’re vital to the democratic process and receive comprehensive training to keep things running smoothly and make sure it is easy to vote.

Poll workers represent every party, because administering and protecting the process is a bipartisan responsibility. It’s important to note that counties need poll workers for every election, twice a year every year, not just during presidential elections. Local elections are just as important as federal elections, and the need for poll workers doesn’t go away after 2024. While the need for poll workers this year is critical, we need Pennsylvanians to step up and commit to being civically engaged this year and beyond.

Another great option to participate is as a poll watcher, who like poll workers, are our neighbors, and likewise play an important role in ensuring elections are administered properly. Poll watchers are selected by the candidates and parties and certified by the counties. As their title implies, they are there primarily to observe the election process.

Although some bad actors have tried to weaponize poll watchers and use them to fearmonger, important safeguards exist to ensure their positions are used to increase transparency, not for intimidation.

Poll watchers must be registered voters in the county where they are working and must carry a certificate issued by the county. Watchers are issued only one certificate, but they are permitted to watch anywhere in the county.

Together, poll workers and poll watchers form a firewall against fraud. The more people are involved in the electoral process, the more they can see for themselves how free, fair, safe and secure that process is.

The Committee of Seventy wants to ensure anyone interested in serving as a poll worker or poll watcher feels ready for Election Day. That’s why we’re offering information sessions on these roles from now until Election Day. It’s never too late to get involved in your community’s elections, so please consider joining us for these important sessions.

The best antidote to anxiety over the state of democracy is action. Serving in these important roles will strengthen democracy and provide some much-needed reassurance during a trying time. ••

Lauren Cristella is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that has promoted, supported and facilitated government ethics and election integrity for over a century.

Jeff Greenburg is senior adviser on election administration at the Committee of Seventy. From 2007 to 2020, he served as the director of elections in Mercer County, Pa., where he administered 28 elections.

Letters to the Editor

Much-needed new rail cars

It was very great news that on Feb. 21, SEPTA was awarded a grant to get new rail cars. When having to use SEPTA, it is important that riding in a sanitary clean transit vehicle is accommodated. The Market-Frankford Line known as “The El” has to be very much cleaned up. Sometimes there are pieces of trash plus recyclables everywhere on the vehicle. Leslie Richards, CEO and general manager of SEPTA, and leadership team did a good job to obtain the grant, making sure SEPTA stays upgraded, safe and functioning properly. Having a clean environment makes a large majority of people feel more comfortable, safe and happy, going on with their day-to-day endeavors.

From the phila.gov website office of the mayor section stating: Making Philadelphia the safest, cleanest and greenest big city in the nation, with economic opportunity for all. For these types of results to truly ensue, more has to be done from every single one of our elected representatives to make such big changes and promises.

Alim Howell

No tax money for private schools

First of all, anyone who has known me for a while knows that I attended Catholic schools from Annunciation BVM kindergarten to my MA in Elementary Education at St. Joseph’s University in 1969. Other than church donations, I paid tuition only for college. 

As a low-paid undergrad, I spent my first five teaching years in two South Philly parochial schools that have since closed. I taught the rest of my career in Philadelphia public elementary schools before being hired by Temple University’s College of Education until 2016.

Meanwhile, my husband Stan and I paid full tuition to send our own daughter to private Catholic schools, except for her college scholarship. So I know something about the topic of Mark Zimmaro’s report on paying for education (“Giving back in a big way,” March 13).

Of course, I agree that tuition at today’s private religious schools has become almost prohibitively expensive. We all know that the only reason public schools are free to students is because they are supported by taxes. 

So along comes an organization, Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, or BLOCS, to solve the problem. They are enabled by tax credit programs like Pennsylvania’s EITC for Educational Improvement and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit. 

To make the long story short, by giving donors tax credits, this program enables private religious schools to sidestep the constitutional prohibition against being tax supported. Donors instead pay the schools directly but are then excused from paying that amount in state taxes. In effect, public money is being distributed to private religious schools through the back door.

I would have little problem with this if not for the fact that public schools are underfunded in many areas like Philadelphia. Our population is too poor to support both systems. I would certainly appreciate generous private donations to both our religious or secular private schools. Making that a tax write-off changes the picture entirely.

Gloria C. Endres

Education budgets are crucial

At this time of year, education budgets in state and local communities across America are being finalized for the upcoming 2024-25 school year. We encourage everyone to contact your local school district office and urge them to promote curriculums that will prepare America’s youth for the jobs now available and for job opportunities in the future.

We all know that reading, writing and math skills are very important, but we also need to be focused more on the jobs needed to replace people who are retiring from the workforce as well as the new type of job opportunities being created every day. In America’s high schools, it should be mandated that every student be offered classes that would place them on the path to a long-term career. Students should be encouraged to consider professions like medicine, education, law and business. They should also be offered hands-on classes for the trades such as construction, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, welding and manufacturing. All of these careers are very important to American businesses and the future of America’s economy.

As school boards meet to finalize their budgets, school superintendents need to hear directly from you, the parents and taxpayers who want a more realistic look at how students are being prepared for the ever-growing workforce in the United States. When you call, let them know you want your tax dollars to be used for an education that will offer your children career opportunities that will benefit them for a lifetime. Let them know that you feel graduates should be ready to apply for one or several jobs upon graduation from high school.

Kindly spread the word to your family and friends and call your local school superintendent’s office as soon as possible. Email your suggestions to Michael@AmericanWorkersRadio.com.

Michael Blichasz