Speaking Monday during a panel discussion on democracy and civics at Dickinson College, Tom Corbett, who served as Pennsylvania’s governor from 2011 to 2015, said the advent and growth of social media has changed how news and information flows, and said a response is needed to combat disinformation from spreading in future elections.
“What’s really changed – what’s changed within the last 10-15 years – is communication,” Corbett said, holding up his cell phone as an example. “Everybody today has a billboard. Even back when I was attorney general, you really didn’t ever pull that. You may be able to send things out, but social media changed the dynamic. I think it’s skipped over political civic education.”
Corbett, a Republican, wasn’t the only person who took part in Monday’s panel discussion. The forum, hosted by Keep Our Republic, a civic advocacy organization, also included input from former U.S. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt; Dickinson College president and former federal judge John Jones; Velma Redmond, a former state deputy attorney general who also previously served as counsel to the Pennsylvania Department of State; Sarah Niebler, a Dickinson College political science professor; and Ari Mittleman, Keep Our Republic’s executive director.
Corbett emphasized that developing new ways to communicate with voters and Pennsylvanians could help prevent political violence, like the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“We’re here today because we don’t want to see … a repeat of what we saw on Jan. 6,” Corbett said.
Corbett said local partnerships with county commissioners, coffee shops, VFW organizations and county fairs could provide a vehicle for voter education organizations and community members to connect with voters and provide them with accurate information about elections and government.
“It’s hard to believe that we have to educate our civics. Unfortunately, I believe we do, and I think many here in this room believe we do – to explain the process, to explain how it works, to work with the county commissioners, to work with local organizations,” he said.
Monday’s panel is one of several events being hosted throughout the commonwealth by Keep Our Republic, with another scheduled at Franklin & Marshall College for Monday night.
Asked about former President Donald Trump’s role in fomenting trust issues and election conspiracy theories, Corbett once again focused on the need for more conversations about civics at the local level.
“I go back to that lack of civic education, or ignoring civic education, or ignoring the facts and creating a dialogue based upon a house of cards. That, I think, is the major problem that’s going on there,” Corbett said.
Gephardt, a Democrat and former presidential candidate, agreed with Corbett on the importance of focusing civic education efforts on local communities, saying the local level is “where everything has to happen.”
“What we’re seeing now and seeing the last few years is that people’s trust in the process by which we elect representatives and leaders for our country is almost broken,” Gephardt said. “If we can’t repair it and keep it, we will lose this democracy.”
Redmond, former counsel to the agency that oversees Pennsylvania elections, said that while she is personally very familiar with how elections are run in the state, she “could not have imagined the breadth and complexity of issues that our election administrators face today.”
She said it’s also important that voters understand not just how to vote and how to register to vote, but how the state’s post-election processes, such as tabulating results and conducting audits, work.
“We can help to strengthen our democracy by educating ourselves and others about these critical tasks that occur after we cast our vote. It’s important that our procedures for counting, certifying and canvassing votes after the election remain nonpartisan activities,” Redmond said. “It’s important that we identify and address any nuances and ambiguities in our state laws and procedures now so that we can mitigate against the possibility of post-election disruption and subversion.”
Like Gephardt, Mittleman stressed that action needs to be taken now to get ahead of existing distrust and uncertainty about the country’s institutions that could resurface in the 2024 presidential election cycle.
“There’s a brush fire in the body politic,” Mittleman said. “I think that a few sparks could create a five-alarm fire.”